Monday, March 2, 2015

Crazy for the Lady of the Lake

Rossini's La Donna del Lago
Met premiere - February 16, 2015

Elena, the beautiful lady of the lake
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
I am always excited when underperformed bel canto gems are brought to the spotlight, even more so if through a new Met production with a stellar cast. We got to the Met ready to be swept away by bel canto fireworks and to discover an unknown opera seria. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago premiered in 1819 and is truly epic in tone. One can really feel proto-Verdian touches lurking here and there, especially in its massive choruses and its patria oppressa (oppressed fatherland) themes.

Rossinian tenor fight!
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
While this all sounds wonderful, the plot turned out to be rather weak, with the main tensions coming from Elena being the love interest of three different men, one (Malcolm) she loves back, one (Rodrigo) is a rebel army leader her father wants her to marry, and one (Giacomo) is the King and enemy of her clan of Scots (but when we meet him he’s lost in the woods and disguised as the hunter Uberto). There is some vague theme of duty versus love but otherwise no particularly stirring passion, other than that of the three men all crazy about Elena, who remains rather distant. The best dramatic moments are when the King and Rodrigo fight over Elena and when Malcolm is suicidal because he thinks he’s losing her.

The inexplicably merciful King
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met  
The whole nationalistic theme of in-fighting among the Scottish clans is not very fleshed out and merely serves as a framing device for the love quadrangle to develop. Most irritatingly, the finale and role of king Giacomo are not very plausible: if he’s so in love with beautiful Elena and keeps popping up in a hunter’s disguise to try to kiss her and sing her nice stuff and even kills his rival Rodrigo, why on earth in the end does he act like a deus ex machina who suddenly seems to have had a change of heart and only wants to solve everyone’s problems by pardoning all and marrying Elena off to Malcolm on the spot? What’s the deal, is Malcolm any better than Rodrigo from the King’s perspective? They’re both scot warriors leading armies against the King and in love with Elena, all the reason to crash them both. Go figure. The change of heart of the King, which ultimately sets the tone for the finale and thus for the whole opera, is not justified in any way by the libretto except for the chorus blurting “Oh re clemente” (Oh merciful king), which after all his romantic frenzy and womanizing pursuit of Elena throughout the opera really does not make much sense. The theme of unconditional compromise and mercy is clear but forced and feels rushed.

Rodrigo's Scot clan ready for battle
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
Plot issues aside, what is particularly surprising is just how formulaic this opera seems. Because three different love interests have to be set up, Act I basically serves purely as exposition and, as a result, I found it pretty slow and even a bit dragging. The dramatic musical action only really gets going in the beginning of Act II when King James, disguised as Uberto, and his rival Rodrigo go head to head in a battle of the tenors, which is one of the first times that things get interesting musically. A weird Rossini passage, if you ask me. Musically it was exciting and more complex and multi-layered (particularly under Michele Mariotti's baton) than the more buffa works he’s more known for and there are some pretty pleasant bel canto moments, however, the opera did not feel as potent, tight and incisive as others by Rossini. Also, I found the libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola to be too stiff and formulaic, without the poetry or language depth that one finds in Rossini’s lighter fare.  

Uberto (aka King Giacomo) declares his love
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
The cast was very strong across the board but, surprisingly, the second tier roles as Malcolm (sung by mezzo Daniela Barcellona) and Rodrigo (by tenor John Osborn) delivered the best performances. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez as Elena and the King were quite good but not as sensational as they can be. It felt like they were holding back a bit and not riding their roles with the extraordinary bravura, energy and confidence I’ve seen them display in the past. A couple of exceptions: Joyce killed it in her last aria Tanti affetti, that really felt like the final aria in Cenerentola both musically and content-wise; Juan Diego only brought out his A-game when battling with tenor John Osborn (Rodrigo) in the beginning of Act II. It felt like the challenge of going head to head with a similar singer propelled him to push harder. Barcellona and Osborn were more impressive, fluid and effortless, owning the Met space and attacking their roles with gusto and depth. Barcellona, in particular, delivered one of the most moving moments of the evening with her interpretation of Stelle spietate.
Elena and battle preps
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met 
Paul Curran’s production is essential and on the empty/sad side of things, not distracting but not terribly engaging either. Most of the opera is set on a rocky platform that serves as backdrop for Elena’s little cabin as well as for all war activities (with ample barbaric display of human heads set on poles). Where are the lush green hills of the Scottish countryside? Beats me. People talked about projections but unfortunately those were not visible to us up in first few rows of the family circle. The final scenes in the King’s castle were more spectacular with the rocky platform opening up down the center to expose a red rectangle underneath that in turn becomes the throne room providing a striking contrast between the court dressed in luminous gold and white and the poor Scottish warriors in their kilts and bloody rags.

All in all I found La Donna del Lago underwhelming, I may have been able to get beyond the weak plot and lukewarm production if the singing had been truly spectacular but, at least on this night, it simply was not.

- Lui & Lei

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