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March 23/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: La Donna del Lago (Opera)

La Donna Del Lago (Opera) by Giacomo Rossini; libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola; conducted by Michele Mariotti; directed by Paul Curran; starring Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flrez, Daniela Barcellona, Eduardo Valdes, Oren Gradus, John Osborn, Olga Makarina, Gregory Schmidt; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission; March 14, 2015

This season marks the first ever Met appearance of this opera, first performed in 1819. Why such a long delay? I’m thinking it must have something to do with the story. Admittedly, the condensation of Sir Walter Scott’s novel for operatic presentation may have something do with the schmaltzy effect.

We open with what looks like a pastiche from a production by your local Operetta Guild. A chorus of Scottish peasants – complete with pitchforks, laundry baskets and such – has gathered at the edge of a lake some morning. Having nothing else of any importance to do, these folk sing a hymn of praise to the day that’s dawning. Then they scamper off to their day’s activities, so that a beautiful young woman, Elena, can take the stage, gathering wild flowers and singing about the man she loves. Along comes a guy who claims to be a hunter who has lost his way. Even though this guy is devilishly handsome and sings like an opera star, our young woman can’t see that he is obviously the Giacomo V, King of Scotland, on the lam.

Taking pity on this young wanderer, she invites him back to her humble cottage. But don’t worry: no fear of any hanky-panky, because a group of thirty women comes to serenade our heroine. As the supposed hunter is rapidly falling in love with her, the women’s chorus, for no discernible reason, is setting up a banquet table outside Elena’s hut. (Maybe the director couldn’t think of anything else for them to do.) We gradually learn that Elena is actually in love with Malcolm, a brave warrior. Her dad, unfortunately, has decreed that she must marry Rodrigo, another formidable fighter. Romantic matters are, you might say, a bit problematic for Elena.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing about warring among the Scottish clans. Seems some of them are rebelling against the king. We get glimpses of these ruffians threatening local women in hopes of finding the king. But these fierce warriors have the odd habit of continually interrupting these interrogations and falling on their knees to sing pious requests for success in battle. In spite of all the tartan and the mud and the blood, I felt these guys needed Mel Gibson to show them a thing or two about being brave hearts: maybe some of that derisive flipping up of their kilts to show their enemies what stuff they were made of. Thanks to those prayers (I assume), it all ends well – except for Rodrigo, who gets killed in battle. The king proves magnanimous, relinquishing his claim on Elena, allowing her to be united finally with Malcolm.

In the midst of all the tomfoolery, there were some good theatrical moments. One of them was at Elena’s cottage, while she was at one side of the stage singing about her love for Malcolm, and the king was at the other side of the stage, singing about his love for Elena. You don’t get that quality of dramatic irony in most romantic duets. Before one of the big battles, there was a stark change of mood when a group of priests or shamans entered, bare-breasted and smeared with blue paint. It suddenly felt like the operetta world was left behind and we were suddenly in some avant garde 20th century production. Another striking change came in the final scene, when the drab wilds of Scotland fell away to reveal a splendiferous throne room thronged with resplendent courtiers. And the Royal Reveal - Elena’s discovery of the true identity of her erstwhile suitor – was fun if you bought into the mystique of royalty.

What most of us in the audience bought into unreservedly was great music. Having never attended a full Rossini opera – in so far as I can remember – I know the composer’s work mainly from the most famous arias and overtures. This show surprised me with music that was more beautiful and inventive than I was expecting.. Some of the most impressive coloratura came from Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm. Joyce DiDonato’s voice is a little darker, richer and more mature than would be ideal for the role of Elena, but she sang magnificently – not surprisingly, since it’s mainly at her instigation that this opera has been brought to the Met and other places around the world. Juan Diego Flrez (King Giacomo) continues to be something of a phenomenon. You wonder how a human throat can keep pumping out the clear, ringing high notes as he does. But then you discover that John Osborn – Rodrigo – turns out to be damn good at it too.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com