New York, Metropolitan Opera: “La donna del lago”

Metropolitan Opera, Season 2015/16
Opera in two acts by Andrea Leone Tottola based upon the poem The Lady of the Lake di Sir Walter Scott.
Musica di Gioacchino Rossini
Rodrigo di Dhu   JOHN OSBORN
Orchestra and chorus of the Metropolitan Opera
Conductor Michele Mariotti
Chorus Master Daniel Palumbo
Director Paul Curran
Sets and Costumes Kevin Knight
Lighting Duane Schuler
New York, 11 December 2015

In a Met season smothered in bel canto operas—five by Donizetti, two by Rossini—one may ponder the signs of overload. The unfamiliar work is not selling well. La Donna del Lago might play better in these parts if it were titled “The Lady of the Lake.” No one reads Sir Walter Scott’s poem anymore, but it would sound more haimish that way, or the unwary might confuse it with the legend of King Arthur or a Raymond Chandler mystery. Anything to get them inside to hear a pleasant, not terribly exciting Rossini seria score of 1819, most noteworthy because it has been called the first opera ever based on Scott, and Scott’s works inspired dozens of operas in the decades of the Romantic Era then a-dawning. At the Teatro San Carlo, of course, part of the appeal was romantic and unfamiliar Highland scenery. Tree-clad mountains! Torrential burns rushing through the glens! Ellen Douglas (Elena) entering in a row boat across Loch Katrine! But you don’t get that at the Met, where set designer Kevin Knight seems afraid to be scenic. What you get is distant shadows and rolling clouds and some sunset, perhaps to make you think of Santa Fe, where Paul Curran’s production originated. Although there are burning crosses in the Gathering of the Clans scene for a frisson (this detail actually comes from Walter Scott; that’s where the KKK got the idea, too) and blue woad is slopped on naked bodies (an anachronism ripped from Braveheart), the only scenic coup de théâtre was the glittering court room of the final scene, as if the producers knew “Tanti affetti” was the best number in the show and the chance to send audiences home happy. Joyce DiDonato sang “Tanti affetti” with the assurance, the grace, the ecstatic belief in each word she uttered that are her trademarks. She also acted the entire show as if her fears and hopes were genuine. She is a lovely, winning personality, born to hold a stage. Her voice, however, is not the blazing instrument with which a Caballé or a Simionato could move such an opera, like a tidal wave to a triumphant shore. Hers is a most attractive instrument, well-schooled and ready to serve her dramatic purpose; she expresses joy with infectious charm, foreboding with elegant shading. Her ornaments are refined and pretty. She is not a high soprano, but neither was Colbran, the part’s originator, or von Stade, who sang it last in New York: She is never under strain to get every note evenly produced. It is good to be in the presence of her singing and her charm—but without her, we’d never have heard this opera at the Met.  Elena is courted by two tenors and therefore, as usual in Rossini’s serious operas of this period, she falls in love with the trouser mezzo. Either he gets her and a happy ending (Donna del Lago, Adelaide di Borgogna, Le Comte Ory) or he doesn’t and it’s not (Maometto II, Semiramide). The two tenors last year were Juan Diego Flórez (Uberto/Giacomo V) and John Osborn (Rodrigo), whose voices made a fascinating contrast, the one high and nasal, the other low, with a baritonal sexiness. This year, they are Lawrence Brownlee (who sang it in Santa Fe) and Osborn, once again a contrast in qualities that makes it easier to follow them in ensembles. Brownlee has a sweeter tenor than Flórez, though one has heard him sound creamier (in La Cenerentola and I Puritani, for example) than he does here. His lower phrases were growly at the prima. I do not find the voice so sweet as, say, Camarena’s. Brownlee’s acting is less stiff than it used to be, yet his is not a stagy personality. He’s working on it, and he improves. (At the Met, however, the crowd adores him.) Osborn seems, as so often (William Tell at Carnegie Hall last year, for example), underweighted for his choice of roles, skimping on high notes. Perhaps the theater is too large for him. His voice itself is so agreeable, so invigoratingly masculine, and his coloratura so able that I would like him to find his proper repertory.
Daniela Barcellona (Malcolm) is taller than anyone else in the cast, appropriately for a hero, and her singing is full-bodied dark alto, which suits the part. The contrast to DiDonato’s color is very pleasing but Malcolm’s great Act II showpiece, though well executed, failed to wake us up. We were wondering how much longer this plot could twist before Elena found herself before King James to claim his favor. Rossini’s accompanied dialogue here is supposed to be flavored with ironies and smiles, as we know (and Elena does not) just what happiness is coming, that the king will reveal his identity and pardon all, and DiDonato acted as if it all mattered, but the sequence seems very stiff and drawn out. We wanted our dessert, and of course, in “Tanti affetti,” we got it: rivers of pleasant but not sensuous sound, high notes that seemed to burst like balloons of joy. The evening seemed worthwhile, but it was almost the only time all evening that it seemed worthwhile. Oren Gradus, as Duglas, had a weak night, perhaps a cold. Olga Makarina made Albina’s phrases interesting. If there is more to this score than the roundabout adventures of Elena and her three suitors, the case was not made by conductor Michele Mariotti. There was no architectural build to the climactic conflicted concertato that ends Act I; it was there because it had to be there, not because it resolved anything. And we felt no tension, when everyone rushed off to battle the royal army, about who would win, who would survive, what was going to become of our heroine. Our heroine was Joyce. She was in fine form. If she lasted till the final scene, we didn’t give a hang for the rest. Photo Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera