Saturday, 1 June 2013

Serious Brilliance - Rossin's La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden

La Donna del Lago was Rossini's seventh serious opera for Naples, written for a superb team of singers who seem to have inspired some of Rossini's finest serious operas. The original cast included the Spanish diva Isabella Colbran, who became Rossini's mistress and for whom Rossini wrote some of his major roles. Around her was assembled a truly spectacular group of singers including the tenors Giovanni David (Uberto) and Andrea Nozzari (Rodrigo) and the mezzo-soprano Benedetta Rosmunda Pisaroni (Malcolm). These singers seem to have been able to combine technical brilliance with expressivity in a way which has meant that Rossini's serious operas are tricky to mount, getting the right group of soloists together today is a relative rarity. We were lucky that for the new production of the opera at Covent Garden (seen 31 May 2013), a team was assembled which one imagines was every way the expressive and technical equal of the originals, with Joyce DiDonato as Elena (the lady of the lake of the title), Juan Diego Florez as Uberto, Colin Lee as Rodrigo and Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm.

Another problem with Rossini's serious operas is their relative static nature combined with their length. If you have a first act which lasts well over 90 minutes in which large tracts of time are spent with nothing going on, then the director has to do something. On the other hand, with music as technically demanding as this it is unfair to expect singers to career about the stage in mad-cap manner. A balance must be found.

John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at Covent Garden, in his first directing assignment on the main stage chose Sir Walter Scott as the key to his approach to the opera. Andrea Leone Tottola's libretto is based on Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake. Scott's poem was printed in 1810 and Rossini's opera premiered in 1819 so the poem was still very new, current stuff when the opera was premiered. Scott's way of re-inventing and re-imagining Scottish history resonated in wider Europe and many of his works were used as the basis for operas. Rossini's was one of the earliest and as such it is an interesting pre-cursor of the romantic movement, one of the reasons why La Donna del Lago has the currency it does nowadays. But Rossini wasn't strictly a Romantic composer, he and Tottola's re-working of Scott was heavily indebted to fad for the verses of Ossian which swept Europe in the 18th century (the verses in fact being a complete fake!).

So where does that leave us. We have a 19th century poem by Scott which seeks to re-invent Scottish history for the 19th century, and an opera which is heavily imbued with the atmosphere of a fake Scottish poet from mists of time. Fulljames' idea, brilliantly realised visually in the designs of Dicky Bird (with costumes by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Bruno Poet and choreography by Arthur Pita), was to set the opening in the 19th century in an Edinburgh club with Sir Walter Scott showing the club members the historical artefacts in glass cases, including the Honours of Scotland (the crown and sceptre which were supposedly discovered by Scott in 1818). Included in the glass cases is Elena herself (DiDonato), and the off-stage hunting calls in the opening served to evoke the distant 'historical' landscape which Scott is creating, echoed by the huge romantic painting of the highlands on the back wall of the club.

As the story progressed, the walls of the club opened to reveal a wider setting which is far bleaker than the painted image, with a huge staircase which conjured up images of dour Scottish castles. But Scott and the club members remained involved, sometimes watching and sometimes participating. Scott was played by veteran tenor Robin Leggate who sang the role of Serano, assisted by Justina Gringyte singing the role of Albina but was dressed as a man (as were all the women in the chorus who were club members). Inevitably as the story progressed Scott and the club got more involved in the story and during act two there was a sense of it getting out of Scott's control. Finally, when all is resolved, the protagonists return to their glass cases.

The sense that this was Scott inventing history was also conveyed by the fact that the historical elements were mixed up. The highlanders were a bunch of barbaric ruffians in a way which reflect the 19th century pre-conceptions of them rather than any reality (this did cause controversy, see Classical Iconclast's discussion). The costumes for the King of Scotland (Florez, as his character Uberto is the king in disguise) mixed genuine 16th century with 18th century and a final costume inspired clearly by George IV's outfits when he visit Scotland. But the King's soldiers were clearly English redcoats, in a strong reference to the Clearances. There were all sorts of other a-historical details, but as I have said this wasn't history this was an opera based on history at many removes.

By giving himself two sets of protagonists, those in the opera and the members of the Edinburgh club, Fulljames was able to articulate the stage in highly imaginative ways. Whilst this could be seen as intelligent comment, it was also good stagecraft and helped to enliven and articulate potentially static the stage picture. For example, during the finale of act one, when the clans all take an oath, the clan men are undergoing a truly barbaric ritual involving the blood from a huge carcase of a boar. At the same time, the members of the club are watching the proceedings, safe in their comfortable surroundings and eating a good lunch. That this worked on so many levels was partly due to the imagination with which Fulljames moved everyone around the stage and partly because he was taking the opera seriously, despite the ironic distance of his conception. It is fatally easy to stage this sort of opera in a way which encourages the audience to laugh at the silly goings on. This didn't happen here and though the production wasn't perfect, it was an intelligent and highly vivid attempt to really make the piece work.

Of course, it would not have happened without superb performances from the principals. Fulljames clearly seems to have had the support and encouragement of the cast. DiDonato as Elena was a miracle. The original Elena, Isabella Colbran, was clearly quite a dramatic singer and DiDonato did not try to make Elena a light and lyric coloratura, she brought a real dramatic edge to some of her singing whilst still preserving that amazing technical facility which she has and that incredible trill. DiDonato's Elena was fragile, but with a tough core, she gets pushed about by all the men in the show but at the end it is she who finds the strength to go to the king to get a pardon for her father.

In this style of music, it is fatally easy to get hung up on the technical aspects of the role and not get much further. DiDonato has the ability to make the technical aspects look straightforward and to go on to use the music for real expressive purposes. Then, at the end of a very long opera she gets the crowning number, the spectacular Tanti affetti which both dramatically and musically crowned the evening.But she wasn't alone and was surrounded by a cast who were equally as strong.

Juan Diego Florez is not the most dramatic of stage presences, but Fulljames made this stiffness work as awkwardness in the scenes with Elena where he is attempting to disguise the fact that he is the king. The long opening scenes, essentially a series of extended duets for DiDonato and Florez, were simply magical with the two singers complementing each other incredibly. In their scene at the beginning of act 2, when Uberto has returned to see Elena again, there was a moment or two when Florez seemed to be about to force himself on Elena. Coming as it did after the graphic violence at the end of act 1, when the 'highlanders' acted with complete barbarity to the women, this reinforced Fulljames view of Elena as a woman alone amongst men, all of whom regarded her as property. This was only a moment; being as this is opera, Uberto found nobility of spirit and decided not to push himself.

Florez seems to have developed a new power and vividness in his voice, this does not seem to be at the expense of flexibility and brought a nice combination of drama and colour to his voice. There have been occasions in the past, when I have heard him and thought that he did not always get beyond technical facility, that his singing lacked the variety and colour which is also essential. Singing Uberto, I never felt that at all and additionally, he and DiDonato did create a very strong connection.

But, of course, this is opera so there is a love triangle. Elena's love interest is Malcolm (Daniela Barcellona). Barcellona was dressed in full highland fig, complete with kilt and armoury of weapons. Luckily Barcellona has the height and figure to bring this off and she cut a very fine figure as the hero of the evening, something that not every director and designer can rely on. Previously I have seen Barcellona as Didon in Les Troyens and she has Amneris in her repertoire, so I was pleasantly surprised at the easy brilliance of her fioriture.

Malcolm has a long solo scene in which he remembers past happy times, and Barcellona brought vividness, intensity and sheer technical brilliance to this scene. She was fully the equal of DiDonato and Florez in combing dramatic brilliance with expressivity. That she combined this with the physique du role was a bonus indeed.

There was however a fourth person in the triangle, Rodrigo (Colin Lee) who is Elena' betrothed. It is Rodrigo  who is in charge of the uncouth band of 'highlanders' and if he is not quite as uncouth as them, he is certainly not couth. Lee has doubled with Florez in a number of roles at Covent Garden and, whilst having a different style of voice, has every bit of the Peruvian tenor's technical facility. Here he sang Rodrigo with a nice robustness whilst still nailing all of the top C's. One of the things about Rossini's cast in Naples was that he had a team of star tenors with rather different types of voice, so that one of the challenges for modern productions is not only to cast the singers but to ensure a contrast in style and vocal type. Lee did this well, giving us a robust contrast to Florez, whilst showing that he too had all the notes.

Simon Orfila played Elena's father, Duglas, giving us a nicely robust account of his aria and persuading us that there was a talented young singer under all that hair! Pablo Bemsch was the King's soldier and Christopher Lackner a bard.

Michele Mariotti conducted and his principal virtue seems to have been to give the singers time and space. He did not set the pit alight, but nor did he drag things badly and the result was nicely paced and well balanced, with just a hint at times of a little too much comfortable jogging along in the accompaniment. There were still the odd fault of ensemble between stage in pit in the big numbers.

This production wasn't perfect, but it was fascinating, and allowed the music to speak without too much intervention. I attended the previous performances of this opera at Covent Garden with Marilyn Horne as Malcolm and Frederica von Stade as Elena. This was a production that, however musically apt, had its titter worthy moments including Horne's unfortunate costume where her doublet and hose made her look like an ambulant pin-cushion, and the funny little wobbly motorised boat which von Stade used to cross the lake. It was this production which showed that being literal about stage directions does not necessarily give the best possible dramatic performance. It is to Fulljames credit that he has taken a different, very stimulating view and got superb performances from his cast.

Over the years, the Royal Opera House has shown itself doggedly interested in Rossini's operas. They have staged not only the main three comedies, but Il Turco in Italia as well as a series of his other works.
1985 - La Donna del Lago, 1986 - Semiramide (in concert), 1990 - Guillaume Tell, 1992 - Il viaggio a Rheims, 1994 - Mose in Egitto, 2000 - Otello, 2008 - Matilde de Shabran, 2012 - Il viaggio a Rheims (in concert). These are operas which were written for some of the greatest voices of Rossini's day and which only really come alive when staged. Thank goodness that we have that privilege today too.

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