DiDonato triumphs over dismal staging in Met’s “Donna del Lago”

Tue Feb 17, 2015 at 12:15 pm
Joyce DiDonato Is Elena in Rossini's "La Donna del Lago" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Joyce DiDonato is Elena in Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

When Paul Curran’s production of La Donna del Lago opened at Santa Fe Opera in 2013, it was met with widespread acclaim. His simple, hillside set capitalized on the festival’s outdoor setting, leaving the back of the stage completely open and using the natural beauty of the New Mexico landscape to evoke the Scottish Highlands au plein air. It must have been lovely to behold.

At the Metropolitan Opera, alas, that particular feat of theatrical magic is impossible, and the most inventive solution the production team could come up with was to project scenes of sunset and evening onto the rear scrim. The Met’s version of the co-production, which opened at the house on Monday, is reduced to an enormous mound of dirt in front of screensaver-worthy twilight footage, a lazy bit of “stagecraft.” It doesn’t help matters that the image that dominates the final scene of Act I, that of a trio of burning crosses on the hill, bears a very different significance to an American audience than it likely does to the Scottish director.

It’s especially a shame since Rossini’s opera, which had its long-overdue company premiere on Monday, is a masterful collection of bel canto riches. And without any Zeffirellis or Schenks to live up to, it might have offered a blank slate to a director willing to take a bold approach. Curran’s production, rather, with its sudden-materializing cabin, quivering druids, and slick but bland throne room, resides somewhere near the intersection of Braveheart, The Sound of Music, and Little House on the Prairie.

In Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, the titular heroine, Elena, is torn in various directions by various suitors, duty to her father, duty to country, and duty to king. She eventually winds up with her beloved Malcolm, but must first navigate the turmoil of her father Duglas’s uprising while rebuffing the advances of both the rebel Rodrigo and the loyalist Uberto (actually King James V in an apparently cunning disguise).

From all of this confusion, Joyce DiDonato emerges triumphant. It doesn’t take much courage to tell the listening public that DiDonato is among the world’s greatest singing actors of any voice type; on Monday she was beyond perfect. Given the opportunity to introduce a major role to the Met’s audience, she gave a performance that may ultimately stand as a high point in her already lofty career. What we heard was one of the world’s best voices in top form—her tone was pure honey, her coloratura effortlessly fluttering, her ornamentation fearless.

The highlights of DiDonato’s performance are too many to list, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the sparkling rondo “Tanti affetti” and the ensuing finale. Her soaring, glowing sound and bursting joy inspired awe, salvaging a happy ending for everyone involved. And she did not settle for mere vocal prettiness, instead tracing a gigantic arc from dutiful innocent to hardened woman, refusing by the end to take any nonsense from anyone.

Juan Diego Flórez, no slouch himself, was energetic and passionate as ever in his portrayal of the masquerading young warrior-king. His molten-gold voice was in excellent form, even if it took on a slightly hard edge in his show-stopping cavatina, “O fiamma soave.” This scene, incidentally, was one of the staging’s few enlightened moments—a small forest of heads on pikes seemed a gruesomely humorous comment on the incongruity between the opera’s florid writing and its violent scenario.

John Osborn’s voice may feel just a tad heavy for the role of Rodrigo, but his ability to go toe-to-toe with Flórez in a duel on the high C’s served as icing on what was otherwise a solidly portrayed and admirably sung performance. Oren Gradus was difficult to hear as Duglas, and, in another peculiar directorial choice, he came off as a callous brute motivated more by his fondness for malts than by any desire to defend his rights as a nobleman. Daniela Barcellona took some time to relax into the trouser-role of Malcolm, her vibrato initially sounding too wide for the rep, but she ultimately hit her stride with a subdued but moving rendition of her lament “Ah! si pera.”

Monday was one of the stronger showings in Michele Mariotti’s still-young Met career. The orchestra, under his baton, was crisp and lively, gurgling its way to an enchanting account of this glittering score. Ever obliging, he failed to give Flórez the nudge he needed to keep the energy up in his cavatina—the gumption to challenge a superstar’s tempo is the sort of quality that might come with age.

This production stands out as a curious misstep in what has otherwise been a thrilling season at the Met. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to see how a staging designed for two such different venues as Santa Fe and the Met could ever work at both. The audience on Monday were none too pleased, voicing their displeasure with Curran and his team at the curtain call. Nonetheless, opera lovers should sprint to the house to hear Joyce DiDonato’s performance; it’s more than worth enduring the maladroit staging.

La Donna del Lago runs through March 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org

6 Responses to “DiDonato triumphs over dismal staging in Met’s “Donna del Lago””

  1. Posted Feb 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm by Robert Mesaros

    There are a great many operas that languish in obscurity, usually for good reason. Every so often an impresario is convinced by a singer whose voice is particularly suited to one of these works that it should be resurrected, hence demonstrating this point. LA DONNA DEL LAGO is an opera with much downright banal music and only a few very good pieces that show off the unique talents of Ms. DiDonato and Mr. Florez. I am reminded of when the MET resurrected Donizetti’s LA FAVORITA in 1978, nearly 40 years ago, with a dream cast of Pavarotti, Verrett, Milnes and Giaiotti. I came away from that evening feeling that I had just heard an outstanding performance of a very mediocre opera. The MET has not performed it since. I suspect that LA DONA DEL LAGO (or LA DONNA SENZA LAGO in this case) will fade back into obscurity when these singers are done with it.

  2. Posted Feb 18, 2015 at 10:38 am by CastaDiva

    Spot on. Remarkable singing by this strong cast, with impeccable coloratura singing and breathtaking ornamentation by diva DiDonato, and whose Tanti affetti aria was a tour de force. No less was the coloratura and ornamentation from Florez, who sparkled in his role of King James/Uberto. Osborn, the other tenor, sang with a big, pleasing sound, and was a nice surprise to this listener, who had not previously heard him in such fine form. Barcellona and Gradus were not quite in their stride but should improve as the run continues. The sets, as you say, were dismal, the lighting awful, as one had to peer in the gloom to discern the singers, with illumination provided only in the final scene, and the stage direction poor—aimless gesture by the principals, e.g., picking up and replacing a bunch of heather from the table in the foreground in one scene, for lack of anything else to do.

    Fans of bel canto singing, don’t miss the DiDonato/Florez duo…they are absolutely thrilling.

  3. Posted Feb 20, 2015 at 12:26 pm by David Campbell

    I’ve yet to hear/see this production but i did experience this opera with a near identical cast in the Covent Garden production.
    Whilst I am glad to see new productions of Rossini’s Neopolitan operas after Milan,Paris and London and Santa Fe, do we really need yet another version of La Donna?
    The operas either side of La Donna Del Lago (Ermione & Maometto Secondo) I personally feel are musically superior.

  4. Posted Mar 04, 2015 at 1:35 am by Leonard Ladin

    I find it quite annoying that the NY Times’ gushing review did not find, as this excellent reviewer did, how DISMAL the production was. Opera is “gestalt” art form. Regardless of the near-universal brilliance of the singing, which was the case here, one cannot escape in 3 1/2 hours the impact of poor sets, lighting and stage directions.

    Sorry to nitpick but Met Titles’ constant translation of Elena as Ellen as Ellen and Umberto as Humbert, provided more Scotland than desirable for an evening with beloved Rossini

  5. Posted Mar 21, 2015 at 2:39 pm by R. A. Ewing

    I feel I was a fool for getting conned in to buying a ticket to see this performance Live in HD. There was no life to the first Act. I left at Intermission with no regrets. There was simply no way to get my money’s worth. I would rather hear Joyce in concert…and I am sure she would never sing a note from this disaster. I’ll never take a chance again. Time has proven the great operas. Give me Tosca, Lucia, Mimi, Butterfly. Spare me drivel. The Aria’s the thing for many of us…. yet lovers of great, even good operas. This debut never should have happened.

  6. Posted Dec 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm by Mercadante

    Excuse mistakes in the following text, it’s not my mother-language:

    La donna del lago is my favorite Rossini opera and I bought the bluray. The singers here are in top form: Joyce DiDonato is the best for the role and the two tenors are excellent. The production isn’t that bad as many wrote; it is a naturalistic concept with a great gloomy atmosphere.

    The only drawback are the many cuts in the score, especially scenes for the secondary roles Duglas, Albina, Serano and Bertram. Some of those cut scenes added interesting aspects to the characterizations, e. g. the tournament in which Duglas participate before turning himself in or the fact that Elena asks the king for Rodrigos life before she asks for Malcom’s.

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