Giacomo Rossini’s bel canto opera “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”) has nothing to do with Arthurian legend: instead, it is based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott, set in his beloved Scotland. The “lady” of the title, Elena, is the beautiful daughter of a Highland chieftain, Duglas d’Angus, who has promised her hand in marriage to his ally, Roderigo di Dhu. However, Elena instead loves the young and doughty Malcolm instead. Her life is further complicated when she encounters King James V of Scotland (in disguise as “Uberto”), out hunting, who also falls in love with the maiden at first sight.
(If the character names strike you as a hash, I agree. In Scott’s poem, Elena is “Ellen Douglas,” her father is “James Douglas,” the King’s alias is “James Fitz-James”, and Rodrigo is “Rodrick Dhu” (‘the black’). The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, chose names that sounded better sung as part of an Italian libretto.)
We came specifically to hear Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elena, and we were not disappointed. Di Donato is unquestionably the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, with a voice that is beautiful, powerful, and flexible enough to make the best of the ornamentations called for by Rossini’s score. We agreed that, in her own way, she is every bit the equal of past greats such as Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland.
Actually, the whole opera was a feast for the ear, a good thing since the thin plot of the love quadrangle amid a rebellion of the Highlands against the Lowlander King, exists mainly to hang arias on. All of the singers were just splendid: Juan Diego Flores as King James, John Osborne as Roderigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. We were particularly pleased with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the “breeches” role of Malcolm, who sang a very beautiful aria, Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! fia sollievo a’ mali miei ("Ah! Let me perish”) in the second act. (One may question, as we did, if you can properly call it a ‘breeches’ role if the character is wearing a kilt. This actually came up in the broadcast interview with the singer, in which she said she had had trouble remembering to move like a man, since the longish great kilt felt to her like wearing a skirt--.)
The opera was good to look at as well. Most of the action took place in a simple outdoor set, redressed with foliage or battlefield wrack as needed, backed by a very nice projected sky. This portrayed sunrise, sunset, storm, or a slightly stagey ‘shooting star’, without being either too bright or hyper-real. Costumes for the Highlanders had appropriately ‘ancient’ looking Tartans and what I suppose were period-appropriate baggy socks. The climactic scene in the King’s court was a gorgeous panoply of dress in ivory and gold brocade, which also hinted as to why there might be tensions between the Highlanders and their King--.
This was a very satisfying and beautiful evening at the Opera.
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