By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be streamed from www.metopera.org.
Sunday, July 5
Rossini’s La Donna del Lago 2 Hrs 52 Mins
Starring Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcellona, Juan Diego Flórez, John Osborn, and Oren Gradus, conducted by Michele Mariotti. From March 14, 2015.
As unbelievable as it sounds, the Met’s first-ever performances of La Donna del Lago, Rossini’s richly romantic retelling of Sir Walter Scott’s epic 1810 poem, The Lady of the Lake, occurred in 2015 (nearly 200 years after the opera’s original premiere in 1819. An incredible, all-star cast was assembled for the long overdue occasion. Joyce DiDonato is Elena, the heroine of the title, who is being pursued by not one, but two tenors and a mezzo to boot – all setting off sensational bel canto vocal fireworks. Super star tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, is King James V of Scotland (disguised for much of the opera as the commoner Uberto), and John Osborn sings his political enemy, and rival in love, Rodrigo Di Dhu, rebel chief of the Highlanders who is betrothed to Elena. Complicating matters considerably is the fact that Elena herself loves Malcolm, another rebel leader and a trouser role sung by silken-voiced mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Elena is the young daughter of Duglas (Oren Gradus) who is another of the king’s political adversaries, although he once served the king as his tutor. Paul Curran’s darkly atmospheric production is conducted by Michele Mariotti.
Rossini, one of the great masters of Italianate charm and spectacle, might seem an unlikely candidate to create a retelling of Sir Walter Scott’s shadowy epic of clan warfare in 16th-century Scotland. Rossini’s genius, however, shines through brilliantly and this work gives us one after another rich, tuneful melodies with characteristic bel canto beauty. To briefly unravel the plot, Elena is the daughter of Duglas d’Angus, a nobleman in 16th-century Scotland and a former tutor to James V. He has turned against the king and found a new home on the moors among the rebel highlanders. Duglas has promised his daughter Elena’s hand to an imposing Highland chief, Rodrigo, in order to unite the clans. Unfortunately, Elena loves the earnest, ardent Malcolm and is trying desperately to figure out how to get her father to change his mind.
Meanwhile, there is also the king, whom the highlanders all seem to despise, but who certainly seems to be quite a sympathetic and dashing figure here – especially as interpreted by Juan Diego Flórez. After we first meet Elena, who arrives on stage from her daily crossing of the lake amid the beguiling songs of shepherds, the king (disguised as Umberto) happens upon the scene, finally encountering the young woman he has only heard about, and has often sought to find – the lovely lady of the lake.
He introduces himself as Uberto and claims he has been separated from his fellow hunters and needs some help. Elena graciously brings Uberto with her to her home. During two long and beautiful interchanges with her, the king falls hopelessly in love. And Elena, singing with glowing sound and affecting sweetness, makes clear that she is, for a moment at least, romantically aflutter.
It will be hard not to root for Elena to choose Uberto. Mr. Flórez makes a particularly charming and impassioned king. Vocally he is at his very best and has always brought impressive technical skill and boundless energy to his roles. He tosses off runs and roulades effortlessly and dispatches wonderfully thrilling high notes.
The third rival for Elena’s hand is Malcolm, written for a contralto, and so, a “pants” role – even though here those pants are actually kilts. The fluid mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, with her tall figure and dignified bearing is convincing – if not as attractive a ‘man’ as Flórez. But it is Barcelona’s noble, mellow-toned and ardent singing that will win your sympathy, especially in their duets and in her aching Act II aria “Ah! si pera,” (Ah! Let me perish) when, in despair that Elena is about to marry Uberto, Malcolm longs for death. The first two scenes of the second act take place in the woods and a cave on the eve of battle when Umberto is searching for Elena to attempt to save her from the upcoming danger – he does find her, but she refuses to go with him, confessing her love for Malcolm. He takes the rejection with incredible grace and nevertheless gives her a ring he says the King gave to him. He promises it will get her through any difficulty she might encounter. As he goes to leave, however, Rodrigo emerges from hiding and furious at seeing him with Elena, orders his men to kill the intruder. Elena pleads with Rodrigo and his men to let him go, and Rodrigo decides to duel with Umberto himself. The two men leave to fight each other as Elena follows trying to avert the death of either one.
As Malcolm is contemplating suicide thinking Elena loves Umberto he is informed that Rodrigo has been slain in a duel and without their leader, the Highlanders have no chance to win the war. Elena has gone to the palace to beg for her father’s release and plead for clemency for the rebels. The final scenes take place in the resplendent palace of the King. Elena’s father, Douglas, went there to beg his former pupil for forgiveness but was led away to the dungeons instead. Elena gains entry by showing “Umberto’s” ring to a guard. As she is waiting for him to come to her, she hears him speaking in the next room, expressing his love for her and is happily certain it means he will help her gain an interview with the King. When they enter the throne room together, she is unable to understand the courtier’s deference to “Umberto” until it slowly dawns on her that he is, in fact, the king.
In the end, King James’s genuine love for Elena causes him to forgive both Duglas and Malcolm and bless their marriage. Even if you were not blown away by the previous two and half hours of virtuoso bel canto singing, the last 20 minutes of this opera is well worth sitting through everything it took to get here. In her rondo finale, Elena rejoices to have saved both her father and her true love, while everyone else rejoices that peace has been restored: (Rondo: “Tanti affetti in tal momento!” (So many emotions at such a moment / Come clamoring about my heart / That I cannot explain to you / My immense happiness). DiDonato often sings this incredible aria as a concert encore – it is one of her signature pieces and is followed by the equally incredible “Fra il padre.” I have been fortunate indeed to have been able to hear her in this role in both New York and Santa Fe and I can say without the slightest reservation, it was one of the top two or three experiences I have ever had in a lifetime of hearing great opera.
1. Joyce DiDonato as Elena in Rossini’s ‘La Donna del Lago’ at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
2. Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce DiDonato in Rossini’s ‘La Donna del Lago’ at the Met, 2015. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
3. Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm and Joyce DiDonato as Elena in Rossini’s ‘La Donna del Lago’ at the Met, 2015. Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
4. From left, John Osborn as Rodrigo, Joyce DiDonato as Elena and Juan Diego Flórez as Giacomo V – hurling high C’s back and forth at each other in Rossini’s ‘La donna del lago‘ at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
5. Malcolm (Daniela Barcellona) and Elena (Joyce DiDonato) are united by the clement King James (Juan Diego Flórez). Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.