Farcical aquatic ceremonies: La donna del lago at the ROH


According to the Royal Opera House’s new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. But while the production’s vague juxtaposition of barbaric highlanders and European-style courtiers doesn’t really work, there’s a lot of exciting singing, Joyce DiDonato as the titular aquatic lass, and Juan Diego Florez in a kilt.

Rossini, La donna del lago. Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 5/17/2013. New production premiere directed by John Fulljames with sets by Dick Bird, costumes by Yannis Thavoris, and lighting by Bruno Poet. Conducted by Michele Mariotti with Joyce DiDonato (Elena), Juan Diego Florez (Uberto), Daniela Barcellona (Malcolm), Michael Spyres (Rodrigo), Simon Orfila (Douglas).


La donna del lago is a peculiar match of style and content. The story is wildly Romantic but the musical language is a semi-anachronistic, heavily ornamented opera seria that doesn’t seem to gel with the more primal sentiments that it is expressing. (My colleague the Zwölftöner wrote about this in terms of a very different production of this same opera.) Throw in a convoluted plot and threats of fairy tale kitsch and this is a very tricky opera to stage in a dramatically interesting way. But it’s a star vehicle and Rossini singing is arguably one of the brightest corners of operatic vocalism right now, so it’s a problem that keeps coming up.
John Fulljames’s production is not convincing, however. He gives us a Scottish court of Europe-oriented aristocrats, dressed in a French style and situated in something that is simultaneously a library and, the side boxes suggest, the inevitable theater-in-theater. A sentimental landscape painting of a loch covers the paneled wall at the back, and the human domesticated fragments of Scotland’s wild Highlands are literally encased in glass in the middle of the room. The courtiers let Elena out of her box, she’s in a white nightie looking dazed and emerges singing her opening cavatina.
In disguise, the King (that would be Juan Diego) runs off into their Highland world–this is the main body of the opera’s plot. The courtiers constantly observe this action. At the end, Elena is not married into the court but paired off with fellow wild Highland spirit Malcolm, and they are both returned to their glass boxes.So I guess Fulljames is setting up a juxtaposition of wild Scottish Romanticism with the vestiges of eighteenth-century Enlightenment-era court life, something like the contrast between Walter Scott’s source and Rossini’s transformation of it. Or something. The problem is that this isn’t integrated enough to feel anything more than tacked on. Also there may have been a Rossini look-alike running around. I’m not sure if that was him or not.

There are some cheap attempts to be shocking, such as the disembowelment of a goat (a small ram? a sheep?) that looked so fake as to not even make my Top Five Operatic Onstage Disembowelments (what can I say, I go to see
Bieito productions a lot—but seriously, I can name a whole slew of opera houses that the ROH props department could call for tips on making that carcass look more realistic), some hanging bodies at the end that show us the cost of the court’s taming of the Scottish beasts within, and finally the Highland men do the now-expected thing where they
prepare for war by groping passing women, a thing I really wish productions would stop doing. I know what you’re trying to do but you’re using women as a prop to say something about the men, and that’s problematic no matter the message.
The moment to moment Personenregie is not good at all, involving many stock gestures and static moments. I know that you can’t demand too much during this kind of obstacle course singing, but you can do better than this. The result was a certain dearth of character development. (I am not relating the plot action because its connection to the production, setting, and music, is more a matter of proximity than integration.)
The cast was, however, excellent. As you may remember I often don’t like Joyce DiDonato much, an opinion that registers as operatic heresy. But I think her voice is thin and monochromatic, and her personality is a little too Tracy Flick (of Election fame). Her self-conscious magnanimity and bland poise are too relentless to feel honest or personal. So I was pleasantly surprised how much I liked her in this. The voice will never be plush and the high notes aren’t
comfortable, but she showed very little of the poor intonation that pervaded January’s Maria Stuarda at the Met, and
she rose to truly affecting and technically accomplished singing in “Tanti affretti,” the final aria and the opera’s greatest hit. Character-wise, she was restrained but managed to project a certain aura of mystery and refrained from
perky mugging.
My favorite singer in the cast was actually Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm, whose kilt, as someone put it during the interval, puts a new spin on “trousers role.” She has a far more sumptuous and luscious voice than DiDonato and was exciting through the entire thing, with style and color to spare, and a real connection between music and drama. Her high notes were not easy, but her low notes were extremely impressive. She showed such impressive commitment that you almost stopped feeling sorry for her having to wear such an unflattering costume.
Juan Diego Florez did more or less the same thing he always does: He sang very, very well with unfailing technique and very strong high notes, and a nasal tone that can be an acquired taste. Acting-wise he fell into conventional gestures at every turn. But he did his Rossini thing and that has an undeniable thrill factor just in its easy virtuosity. His counterpart as Rodrigo—this is an opera with four major roles, two mezzos and two tenors—was Michael Spyres, subbing for the ill Colin Lee. I liked Spyres a lot in Beatrice di Tenda last December, but this outing was a little more problematic. He took a long time to warm up and his top notes sounded weak throw Act 1, and the many excursions into his low range were loud but sounded like he had borrowed them from another singer. He did better in Act 2, with some impressive coloratura. When trading high notes with Florez in the Act 2 trio, his sweet but softer grained voice seemed wimpy compared to Florez’s formidable bleat. The production did everything it could to make Rodrigo a nasty supervillain (he cheats on lovely Elena, for example), as to make the ending tidier.
Michele Mariotti conducted a fleet  performance, though the orchestra had some problem patches and coordination wasn’t always that great. The Act 2 trio was quite exciting and zippy. Most shocking was the horrific intonation of the
stage band, particularly an E flat clarinet that was so out of tune I wondered if it was intentional (it is an instrument that requires patience under the best of circumstances, but here its use was plentiful and either it or (maybe?) the piccolo was constantly off pitch). Supporting roles were fine, and most quite brief.
This production is rumored to be in cooperation with the Met, but after the number of boos I heard last night I would be somewhat surprised if that goes ahead. But they took Faust, a far worse production, so who knows.
Photos copyright ROH/Bill Cooper.







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1 Comment

  1. Our reviews are very very similar on most points, though I liked Spyres a little more than you did – it's a ridiculous role! I really don't envy the people having to take on these serious Rossini operas – they really are beset with problems for the director.

    P.S. Where did you get the production photos?

    (Where did you get the production photos?)