Thursday, August 15, 2013

La Donna del Lago

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

And they lived happily ever after

La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, August 15, 2013 – Last night, we attended Santa Fe Opera’s hit production of the season, Gioachino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. So popular is the production here that SFO added a performance August 19. The reasons are the opera’s glorious bel canto score and the glorious company assembled to sing it.

Joyce DiDonato as Elena
All photos by Ken Howard
Courtesy Santa Fe Opera
Based by librettist Andrea Leone Tottola on a long poem by Sir Walter Scott, La Dona del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) premiered in 1819 in Naples, received numerous productions worldwide, and then went unperformed for nearly a century before being resurrected in 1958 in Florence. The work became a vehicle for major divas and divos such as soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and mezzo-sopranos Frederica  von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Stephanie Blake, and on the distaff side, tenors Bruce Fowler, Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee sings the role of Uberto/King James in Santa Fe with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role. DiDonato has sung the role to great acclaim at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Opera Garnier in Paris.

The plot is fairly inscrutable. To simplify, just know that all the men are in love with Elena, the Lady of the Lake (DiDonato), so called because she lives on a lake in the Highlands of Scotland and commutes daily by skiff to the mainland, where she makes her first entrance, picks lots of heather, and encounters numerous shepherds and hunters as well as a stranger named Uberto (actually King James V in disguise, sung by Brownlee).
Brownlee as Uberto

Unknown to Elena, he has been looking for her to find out if she is as beautiful a woman as they say. Elena and James were tutored in his father’s court by Elena’s father, Duglas (bass Wayne Tigges), who in exile took her to Lake Katrine where they live the simple life, tended by Duglas’ servant Serano (tenor Joshua Dennis) and Elena’s confidante Albina (soprano Lucy Sauter).

Uberto, who has fallen in love with Elena, appears visibly shaken and so in the Scots tradition of hospitality, she takes him home with her. Apparently it is morning, a time when a couple dozen of Elena’s closest friends appear with food and consolation. Though she doesn’t confess all to Uberto, Elena, too, is disconsolate because she loves Malcolm (astounding Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato in the trouser role, in this case, a kilt role).

His advances having been spurned, Uberto departs, and then Malcolm appears, followed shortly by Duglas, who announces to Elena that she is to be wed to the Highland warrior Rodrigo (tenor René Barbera). Elena delays her departure for the military encampment long enough to share a rapturous duet with Malcolm, who follows and pledges his allegiance to Rodrigo’s forces, soon to battle the King James’s army.
Pizzolato as Malcolm

Rodrigo, too, is passionately in love with Elena, so that makes three vying for her love. No wonder – a woman so beautiful who sings like that and remains unsullied even through fierce battle! Elena has yet to discover that Uberto is actually the king, but even that does not sway our virtuous, faithful beauty, who spurns Uberto a second time unknowing. Uberto gives her a ring to protect her and her family in the coming battle, saying he received it from the king in return for a favor.

Thus it is, that with Rodrigo killed in battle and the Highlanders defeated, Elena, Duglas and Malcolm go to James’ court where they are received by Uberto, to whom his courtiers bow. Finally, the stupefied Elena realizes who he is (she may be a slow learner), thanks him for the boon, and, her beloveds pardoned, sings the great bel canto paean of forgiveness and joy, “Tanti Affretti.”
Barbera, DiDonato, and Brownle

All depart in joy, especially the audience, regaled with splendid singing and beauty for nearly three hours. DiDonato, Brownlee and Pizzolato are the dream company, and they are stalwartly supported by tenor Barbera, Tigges, the magnificently trained chorus, male, female and tutti, and director Paul Curran, who de-obfuscates as much as humanly possible, assisted by Kevin Knight’s imaginatively designed set and Highland drab costumes. One wishes only for better time of day delineation in Duane Schuler’s lighting, but after all it is the Scots Highlands.

La Donna del Lago’s sold-out final performance is August 18. The curious must wait; along with the ecstatic SFO opera lovers who witnessed it live (among them Ruth Bader Ginsberg and composer Jake Heggie), to see the production at the Met, and hopefully in HD transmission as well.

Tonight we see the highly anticipated SFO production Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein with Susan Graham in the title role.

As an aside, composer Heggie is currently writing an opera for DiDonato with Terence McNally. DiDonato and Graham are among his frequent interpreters, collaborators and friends. It is a treat to see both divas so elegantly showcased.

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