Rossini lago 764404

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
La donna del lago (1819)
Elena: Salome Jicia
Uberto (Giacomo V): Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm: Varduhi Abrahamyan
Rodrigo: Michael Spyres
Duglas: Marko Mimica
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Michele Mariotti
Damiano Michieletto (stage direction)
rec. live, 2016, Rossini Festival, Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, Italy
C Major 764404 Blu-Ray [168]

Back in my teenage years during the 1960s standards of Rossini performance had reached a pretty low ebb. Very few of the operas apart from the ubiquitous Barber of Seville were ever staged or even recorded, and many of those suffered from the severe lack of singers capable of handling the music that the composer had originally written without the liberal addition of mugging, guying, the addition of jokes and would-be funny voices, the simplification or even omission of the most basic ornamentation in coloratura passages, and the almost universal habit of adding ugly and unwanted aspirate ‘h’s throughout any extended roulades in order to ‘clarify’ the vocal line. I refer back to these bad old days largely in order to highlight the extreme expectations that we now focus on the performance of Rossini operas whether in live performance or on recordings; and my delighted amazement that these high demands are so frequently and unobtrusively fulfilled.

Rossini’s setting of Walter Scott’s The lady of the lake began the trend for operatic treatment of the Scottish author’s novels which was to culminate in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; but whereas the fondness of coloratura sopranos for the latter work guaranteed the opera at least a nominal survival in the lean years of the earlier twentieth century, Rossini’s work was effectively torpedoed by its demands for not just one but two tenors capable of handling the most elaborate of scintillating coloratura but also an extraordinarily wide range. And the most remarkable element in this video recording is the contribution of Juan Diego Flórez and Michael Spyres to the opera, a double-act that has been repeated throughout the world and demonstrates conclusively that Rossini really knew what he was doing when he wrote this score and not just suffering from a rush of blood to the head. Flórez has the more conventional tenor tasks to undertake, rolling his roulades around in the upper register with consummate ease that is all the more effective for being apparently effortless. Spyres has to cope with Rossini’s ‘baritenor’ requirements for occasional descents into the bass clef only to rise phoenix-like to occasional giddy heights of bravura which in their turn are all the more effective for being so obviously an application of sheer willpower over the material. Neither emerges clearly victorious in what could easily become a ‘battle of the tenors’ but then that is not the aim; instead we have two singers in the prime of their vocal condition simply displaying their extraordinary and contrasting talents with a sense of what one can only recognise as thorough-going enjoyment – although we must never forget the rock-solid technique and years of preparation that underlie this achievement.

By comparison, too, it is easy to overlook the other singers in the cast. Salome Jicia as the eponymous lady upon whom the two tenors have set their affections has the vocal ability in spades to match those of her suitors. As the two brutish Scottish lairds Marko Mimica and Varduhi Abrahamyan provide all the dramatic punch that is needed – and they too can furnish a lesson in the art of delicate singing and shading in their more florid passages. Michele Mariotti adjudicates all of the fun and games – and the serious drama, too – with a light hand that does not preclude the use of force where necessary, and he understands the Rossini idiom to a nicety.

Those who have waded through these paragraphs of ecstatic and unalloyed delight may however perhaps have noted one significant omission. Yes, I have not mentioned Damiano Michieletto’s production. Now the staging is not irretrievably awful. But it does abound in a whole collection of directorial clichés none of which do anything to assist the singing and some of which do their level best to reduce dramatic coherence to a shambles. The worst of these consists of the time-honoured habit of staging the whole opera as a dream-like reminiscence conjured up by one or more of the characters – in this case, the elderly Elena and Malcolm who are seen almost from the beginning pottering mutely around the stage observing their younger selves and (even worse) attempting to interfere with the action, pushing themselves into the centre of the stage when their presence is least wanted. The sets, with the barest minimum of any suggestion of the Scottish setting that Rossini was at some pains to evoke, is confined to the ruins of the castle with only occasional points where tufts of foliage poke through the walls to suggest the realm of nature – and Rossini’s original scenario explicitly sets much of the action in the open air. These two directorial conceits only serve to obscure the motivations of the characters and their actions at points when the principal concern should be to make them clear, where the abridgements inflicted on poor Scott at the hands of Rossini’s librettist Andrea Leone Tottola and the composer himself require explanation not symbolic pseudo-psychological analysis. The only good thing that can be said about the staging – which clearly cost Damiano Michieletto much effort, if not too much original thought – is that it is not ugly, as so many modern operatic productions of this type are.

Given the confused nature of some of the staging, it is not altogether surprising that the cameras under the direction of Paolo Filippo Berti are sometimes to be found pointing in the wrong direction, but the surtitles – available in Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese – assist anyone coming to the opera for the first time to keep abreast of the action. A booklet supplies a full track listing together with an essay and synopsis provided in English, German and French and still photographs from the production which make the results look more Romantic than they really are. Nevertheless this is a most enjoyable performance of a Rossini opera which is still not often to be encountered on stage, and a most worthwhile addition to the catalogues. An earlier 1992 DVD from Milan featured Rockwell Blake and Chris Merritt in the two tenor roles, but in any event appears to no longer be listed as available on some sites. There is a rival 2015 version (also with Flórez and Mariotti) from the Metropolitan Opera still available on DVD but not on Blu-Ray, so this new version has the field to itself in the superior-quality format; but in any event, and despite the appearance of Joyce DiDonato in the more conventional Met staging, the presence of the remarkable Spyres in this new version might well tip the balance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Other personnel
Albina: Ruth Iniesta
Serano/Bertram: Francisco Brito
Elena (as an old woman): Guisi Merli
Malcom (as an old man): Alessandro Baldinotti
Chorusmaster: Andrea Faidutti
Set designer: Paolo Fantin
Costume designer: Klaus Bruns
Lighting designer: Alessandro Carletti
Video director: Paolo Filippo Berti
Video details
Filmed in HD
Format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats, PCM stereo and DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region code ABC