Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Michele Mariotti
Elena: Joyce DiDonato
Giacomo/Uberto: Juan Diego Florez
Malcolm: Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo: John Osborn
Douglas: Oren Gradus
Few singers have the power to have operas produced for them, and one of the lucky few is the outstanding mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has rightfully taken advantage of it by putting in a special request for Rossini's La Donna del Lago. Maybe it was for the pretty melodies she'd get to sing, or for the guilty indulgence of being ardently courted by no fewer than three young men, one of them being no less than the King in disguise, or maybe just for the satisfaction of seeing this pleasant but little known opera enjoy its moment in the spotlight.
Whatever her motives were, the public has followed in droves, and for La Donna del Lago's first run there ever, the Met's opera house was packed to the brim this afternoon with, I may add, what had to be the widest range of age I had ever seen there.
A heart-warming sight for a heart-warming opera.
Based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott, La Donna del Lago is a fairly standard operatic cocktail of political turmoil and love entanglements, although this one takes place in Scotland during the first half of the 16th century. But as it is often the case in the bel canto repertoire, the plot is nothing more than an excuse for the composer to let his creative juices freely flow. When the composer is bel canto master Giaochino Rossini, even if one goes for story, chances are one will stay for the music.
Hearing Joyce DiDonato sing live is a priceless treat that will not be turned down by any opera buffs. And when hearing her sing Helena, AKA La Donna del Lago, it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that she is smart artist as well as the young conflicting woman is an ideal part for her to showcase her incredible range, from melting sweetness to sparkling fireworks and everything in between. Moreover, beside her famed coloratura, she is also blessed with fine acting skills, which enabled her to generously give her character, who may not have been that exciting to begin with, a fully realized presence. To top it all off, her "Tanti affetti" was eagerly awaited and magisterially demonstrated why she is unquestionably one of today's top opera singers.
The other big name in the cast, tenor Juan Diego Florez, also happens to be a frequent stage partner of Joyce DiDonato's, a fact that has probably significantly contributed to the palpably high level of comfort between them. But if their chemistry made for some dazzling singing together, he also superbly stood on his own, in particular during the show-stopping aria of Act 2 "Oh fiamma soave". With a technique as astounding as ever and charisma galore, he probably made his dashing King a nicer guy than he deserved, which in turn of course made you wonder why Elena just did not run off with him.
Rodrigo, the heroic chief of the rebellious highlanders who has decided to make Elena his bride was impersonated by John Osborn, who handled the opera's other challenging tenor part with bravura and commitment. Malcolm, the young man who stole Elena's much in demand heart was actually mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. A trouser role regular, she made the most of her frumpy look and sang with nuance and conviction. The last, but definitely not least, man in Elena's life was her father, Douglas, to whom bass Oren Gradus equally imparted fierce patriotism, deep fatherly love and natural gruff.
All the splendid singing made the three hours go fast, but they would have gone even faster if the production had been of the same level. Unfortunately, the earthy-tone sets and costumes were really minimalist, which probably worked well in Santa Fé since they could benefit from glorious desert vistas at sunset in the background, but in the Met's cavernous opera house, they looked mostly drab, except for the last scene, in which the sumptuous costumes of the courtiers were all in refined shades of yellow.
The richly lyrical music is of course the main reason to attend La Donna del Lago. From virtuosic arias to dazzling ensembles, the score keeps on coming up with stunning melodies, which not only powerfully express high-voltage human emotions but also winningly convey the mysterious beauty of faraway Scotland. This afternoon, conductor Michele Mariotti drew a genuinely inspired performance from the always excellent orchestra, and the chorus did its usual impeccable job. I had come for the music, and I stayed for the music.