There is always a mixture of anticipation and curiosity as you arrive in Santa Fe to watch five operas in a row. The Santa Fe Opera assembles a mix-and-match group of singers, conductors, directors and all of the other related designers and directors to stage a major opera season in a very short time period. There are a few weeks, such as this one, where the dedicated opera fan can see one right after the other. Last week offered the same opportunity. These two weeks also draws critics from around the country, and reviews start to pop up everywhere.
Tuesday gave us Gioachino Rossini’s La donna del lago, an opera vaguely based on Sir Walter Scott’s poetic epic The Lady of the Lake. At its premiere, the opera set off a rage for all things Scottish and other operas soon appeared based on Scott, most notably Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
The Lady of the Lake’s atmospheric tale of warring clans and mixed up suitors on the rugged Scottish landscape required a great deal of simplification by librettist Andrea Leone Tottola. To further complicate matters, he was working from a French translation. While his efforts give a cornucopia of opportunities for all of the leading characters to sing extended bel canto arias in various states of mind from despair to anger, there is little left of the plot. What remains is such a jumble that following the action requires either intimate knowledge of the opera or a vivid imagination. But not to fear. Rossini hangs one musical treasure after another on this barren skeleton so that after a while, you don’t even bother about who is fighting whom and why.
King James (here called Giacomo) is under revolt by Highlanders led by Douglas, a former favorite. Further complicating matters, Douglas has a daughter, Elena, that he has pledged to Roderick, his second in command. She, of course, is in love with Malcolm, another Highlander from another clan. Worse, King James himself turns up. Lost from his hunting party and not in royal garb, he is offered a traveler’s hospitality by Elena and, without revealing his identity, states that he has instantly fallen in love with her. Eventually, it all works out. Roderick is conveniently killed off in the fighting. King James forgives the rebels and blesses the marriage of Elena and Malcolm.
La donna del lago is an opera that you only produce if you have a golden cast of fine bel canto singers who are capable of negotiating the mind-boggling technical demands of the roles. Back in the day when this was written, such singers were legendary and followed by adoring crowds, much like movie stars are today. Isabella Cobrand, for whom the role of Elena was written, was the diva of divas at the time. Rossini wrote many other roles for her, including that of wife for a 20 year run, until he left her for what we would call a supermodel today.
At the time of this work, her soprano was moving into mezzo territory, where many thought she should have been all along. This means that this is one of the plum roles for a virtuoso singer and American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato absolutely shines. She astounds as she easily tosses off all of the virtuosic acrobatics, all the time maintaining a sympathetic character who is so torn by events and conflicting loyalties that she teeters on madness. You believe her every minute.
The other diva in the opera is portraying a divo—a “pants” role for a contralto—as Malcolm. Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato has all of the required vocal fireworks and her Act Two cabaletta “Che sento!” is a study in blindingly fast and absolutely accurate passage work. Unfortunately, it takes quite a salto di credulità to believe that she is a man and putting her in bulky layers of costumes and a shirt-like kilt doesn’t help. The love duet, ending with a romantic kiss, suffers as a result.
There are two tenor roles as Elena’s unsuccessful suitors. While both in this production are lyric tenors, the difference is striking. As James, Lawrence Brownlee has a dark and burnished sound without a hint of Italian ring. On the other hand, René Barbera, as Rodrigo, is overly bright with Italian flavor to spare. In a trio, they exchange notes at the top of their ranges and the wide difference in sound is a study in vocal types and production. One is too bright and the other too dark, but both are secure and produce beautiful and unstrained high notes. Both are also acceptable as actors but these one-dimensional roles don’t necessitate the same acting skills that Elena’s journey requires of DiDonato.
Wayne Tigges brings a sturdy baritone and a commanding presence to Douglas. Other than his reliance on stock opera gestures, such as holding an imaginary ball in front of his body in his right hand during emotional moments, his characterization is excellent. Two ancillary roles are also notable. Lacy Sauter as Albina, Elena’s confidant, is touchingly protective of Elena and tosses some dagger glances at anyone who she perceived as an evildoer. Joshua Dennis as Serano, assistant to Douglas, brings dimension to the character in all his appearances.
Stage director Paul Curran tries to strike a balance between having everyone running around the stage and the static stand-and-sing that such an opera can engender. We want it both ways: for the singers to stand and deliver on these vocal showpieces and for a modern theatrical experience at the same time. In solving this dichotomy, Curran mostly succeeds.
In crowd scenes, he accomplishes this by having someone always in motion while the majority remains in place. Singers circle each other in tense exchanges rather than meaningless crosses one way and then the other. The only strange moment occurs when the chiffon-caped sears appear. Having them bare-chested and writhing on the floor, as if possessed, adds nothing. When they paint blue crosses on their chests, it adds something—but I’m not sure what.
Kevin Knight provides a bare stage with a large, raked slab of slate dominating everything. It works fine as Scotland, but could also be anywhere else. Elena’s house pops unexpectedly out of the ground but conveys a modest and rustic hominess once it arrives. All the severed heads on poles after intermission may have indicated that things didn’t turn out so well for one side, but none of the leading characters seems the least bit horrified to see them. The dead deer adds realism, I suppose, but they distract with thoughts about their unfortunate demise and how recent it was. The golden and gilded court of King James, which suddenly rises in the back of the stage—complete with a satin-bedecked chorus—tosses us to another time zone completely. Perhaps the Scottish Court resembles that of Elizabeth I or even Louis 14, but it is doubtful.
But one critical stage business is missing. There is no lake and no “little skiff” for Elena’s entrance. This is a most glaring omission since it is a memorable moment in the poem. This is the Lady of the Lake, after all.
Conductor Stephen Lord leads a musically intense performance and offers excellent support to all of the singers. There were times when things got away from him on Tuesday, but he quickly remanded the situations.
Most impressive is his conducting in the long accompanied recitatives. This is one of an opera conductor’s most difficult tasks, and Lord is masterful. His coordination with all of the backstage players is also outstanding, considering all of the inherent problems this engenders. Balance is uniformly good and the chorus, the members of which have many different roles to fill and quick costume changes, are were prepared by Susanne Sheston, does a fine job.
Other than that glaring omission of the lake, it’s a satisfying production with great singing.
◊ Other reviews from the 2013 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Offenbach's La grand-duchesse de Gérolstein, starring Susan Graham
- Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
- The world premiere of Theodore Morrison's Oscar, starring countertenor David Daniels
- Verdi's La traviata