Santa Fe Opera’s thrilling “Donna del Lago” proves the highlight of the summer

August 02, 2013
By Charles T. Downey

Joyce DiDonato as Elena in Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

It had to happen eventually, and it did.

After some disappointments earlier in the week, Thursday was a very good night to be at the Santa Fe Opera. The company’s debut production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago turned out to be the high point of this summer’s season. In a charming, rustic production, directed by Paul Curran and shared with the Metropolitan Opera, a top-notch cast blew the roof off Crosby Theater with performances that were vocally and musically thrilling and dramatically compelling. The magnificent purple-hued vista of a stormy night in the New Mexico desert, complete with lightning flashes, is the sort of thing that only Santa Fe can offer.

This opera does not get produced all that often, but it is not for lack of beautiful music or because of the arch-Romantic story drawn from Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. In fact, it is an enjoyable opera all around, if one can assemble the singers required to tame its virtuosic challenges. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has made the title role one of her signature pieces, was innocent and affecting as the virtuous Elena, with only the brittleness of some sustained high notes in the negative column. Her technical mastery of the many gnarled fioriture was astounding, and her rendition of Tanti affetti, in which Elena marvels at the miraculous resolution of all her troubles, showed why that aria is one of the great climaxes of opera history, a gorgeous moment of benediction frozen in time.

If you have forgotten your Scott from English class, Ellen is the daughter of Douglas, a highlander who has been driven from the court of Scotland. Her father hopes to marry her off to Roderick Dhu, another highland clan leader who is leading a rebellion against King James V. Little does Ellen know that the wandering stranger who has just followed her home from Lake Katrine is actually the king himself, who also falls madly in love with her. Poor Ellen has eyes only for a third suitor, Malcolm Graeme, whom she promised to marry. The king in disguise, eventually accepting that he will not win her hand, gives her his ring, a sign of royal favor that she cashes in to secure clemency for her father and Malcolm when the rebellion fails and Roderick is slain.

One of the problems in Rossini’s opera version is that you need two very good tenors, who both have to sing plenty of high notes and complicated fioriture. The trio they sing with Elena, Alla ragion, deh! Rieda, has so many high Cs volleyed back and forth that Rossini had to cut it in some later revivals of the opera.

Lawrence Brownlee was excellent as Uberto, the disguised James V, bringing a laser-like high D and polishing off the role’s many complicated runs with panache. In the smaller role of Rodrigo di Dhu, his rival, René Barbera had the better C in the duet but a few problems with the agility of his voice and with transitions from middle to low registers.

The vocal revelation of the evening, however, was the company debut of Sicilian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, who brought a smoky, velvety contralto to the trouser role of Malcom. She sang the most expressively of the cast, with a native understanding of both Italian diction and bel canto technique in Malcom’s luscious slow arias. Only notes at the very top did not notch perfectly into place, but this is a minor complaint in what was a whopper of a debut.

Bass Wayne Tigges was a resonant Duglas and, towering over everyone else on the stage, looked like he was born to wear a kilt. It was a shame that such a talented singer was stuck with the aria Taci, lo voglio, which like most of the recitatives in the opera was composed not by Rossini but by an unknown assistant.

In supporting roles, none of the apprentice singers covered themselves in glory exactly, but soprano Lacy Sauter made a saucy Albina, Elena’s confidante, and the male and female choruses were effective and well-balanced — no aspiring soloists sticking out of the texture.

Paul Curran’s production was beautiful and strikingly authentic, taking the viewer into the story and its Scottish setting. It was mostly set on a raked stage meant to look like the slope of a mountain, covered with moss (sets and costumes by Kevin Knight). It was disappointing not to see a lake, since Lake Katrine plays such an important part in the poetry of Walter Scott, and it spoiled Elena’s opening cavatina in some ways that she did not sing it from her little boat in the lake. The rock stage opened up to allow two other sets to rise up from below, the humble lakeside hut of the Duglas clan in Act I and the throne room of James V in Act II.

Oddly, the setting of the opening of Act II put Uberto’s aria not at the mouth of a cave but on the same rocky slope, with severed heads on spears thrust into the ground. Curran’s appropriation of Pictish barbarian qualities for the war scenes—Rossini à la Braveheart— crossed into anachronism when a group of blue stone-bearing druids led the war chants at the end of the first act: Scotland had been Christianized for some time by the 16th century.

The orchestra accompanied sensitively, although conductor Stephen Lord, whose beat is not always as clear as it could be, allowed some misalignments to creep in between stage and pit. The offstage banda was in generally good form, with only a couple of gaffes, although it sounded like they were using the reduced score Rossini made later, rather than the original banda of over thirty instruments.

This is Santa Fe’s second debut of a serious opera by Rossini, after Maometto II last season, and it was by far the most successful opera of the summer, requiring the company to add an extra performance to comply with audience demand. Let us hope that the Santa Fe debut of Guillaume Tell is waiting around the corner.

La Donna del Lago continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 19.

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