Donna del lago disappoints

18 May

I’ve loved La donna del lago ever since I bought the Pollini LP of it in the late 1980s.  It has a series of gorgeous arias and duets, the only one of which disappoints isn’t by Rossini.  The Act I finale is one of his most unusual, at least at that stage, because of the importance of the chorus – one of his very few where a double chorus makes an appearance, providing a really effective ending.  At least so it sounds on disc.

The plot is relatively slight – essentially about Elena negotiating her way through three lovers (only one of whom she cares about) with a Scots rebellion in the background.  It struck me at this performance that this must be the first Romantic opera, in the sense that the remote setting is an integral part of what the piece is about and it leads the way towards pieces like William Tell, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Norma.  Watching it at this performance, I also saw ready links with Cenerentola and Tancredi as well, with Rossini exploring the conflict between love and duty.

So I was really looking forward to seeing the first night on 17th May 2013.  It had as good a cast of Rossini singers as you could hope for and a director whose work for Opera North I have hugely admired.  I wasn’t expecting it to be revealed as an undiscovered masterpiece, but I was hoping for something that was in sympathy with the work.  I didn’t get it.

One of the things that I have admired most about John Fulljames is his ability to get to the heart of an opera.  I remember his Roméo et Juliette for Opera North where he pared down what I’d always thought of an over-dressed piece of Victoriana into a show where you got to the heart of the lovers’ emotions and, very cheaply, managed some gorgeous visual effects and made it a deeply moving experience.  I’d hoped for something similar here.  What I’d not reckoned with was the fact that he’s (a) not obviously worked with stars before and (b) probably not dealt with even the relatively low budget that he’d have had for this work here.  I also strongly wondered whether he even liked the opera.

This production essentially was about Sir Walter Scott and Rossini staging the opera to Scott’s guests.  We open in a library with Scots relics in a cases, including a ghostly Elena.  The opening scene happens there until Elena escorts the King to her house (a huge spiral staircase making a mockery of the humble retreat she talks about).  Scott and Rossini are on the side all the time and play the roles of Serano and and Albina, respectively – after a particularly emotional scene, they let Elena into the library and give her a brandy.  The guests at the party sing the opening chorus (it’s odd seeing wealthy people in evening dress singing about tending their flocks).  They also sing the bards at the end of the first Act enjoying, I suspect, some nice venison while the rebels onstage removed the entrails from a stag to prepare for battle.  I’d given up trying to work out whether the two matched by that point.  What this did was to put all the characters at one remove from the audience so that they became cardboard cut-outs that could safely be put back in their boxes at the end.  Then there were sillinesses like a massive tartan backdrop for the last scene and a crown for Flórez that didn’t fit.

I think Fulljames’s rationale goes something like this.  Scott was consciously rediscovering/creating Scots myths – indeed, many of his books begin with historical discussions which have little to do with the novel, but lead in to it.  Therefore it’s right to create a similar artificial framework for this opera: we are watching the creation of an opera which was creating its own world.

Aside from the fact that showing us this isn’t very interesting (I can read about it in the programme if I need to know about it), I think he’s mistaken on lots of levels.  First, Scott doesn’t use this technique in the very early Lady of the Lake.  Secondly, the “antiquarian” parts of his novels are the bits that everybody skips and must have been pretty boring even in the 1820s.  Scott’s skill was in córeating a world where his readers directly identified with his characters and their situations, not in creating an academically interesting exploration of Scottish myths.

Even if I’m wrong about that, Rossini was certainly not trying to create a distance between between the audience and his characters – he was perfectly capable of doing so if he wanted (see Turco in Italia).  He was creating a world which appealed directly to a growing romantic sensibility, creating a fantasy in exactly the same way that Puccini did with Fanciulla or Turandot.  He didn’t want you to see him doing it.  Now it may well be that we find it difficult to take that particular romantic idea and setting these days (I doubt it, in fact, but assume that we do).  In that case, the director’s job is to find a way of making it work for us so that we identify with and empathise with the characters.  I don’t see why it’s impossible to envisage a way of bringing a world at a time of conflict where a woman has to negotiate between three men to life for a modern audience.  And Fulljames’s conceit of showing you how the opera was made is, in my book, a way of dodging that task or saying that the opera just isn’t worth doing on its own terms.  In which case, can we just have a concert of it and you can spend the money on something else.  It placed a barrier between audience and characters and this was exacerbated by a sense that the three leading singers weren’t being helped to show characters that grew as the opera went on.

There was, I thought, only one point where the opera really came vividly to life to as drama.  This was at the entrance of Rodrigo and his men – vagabond, vicious rebels determined to rape and pillage.  You got a sense there of why Elena had no wish to marry that man (not obvious from Rossini’s music) and brought a real element of danger.  The characters at the edge were not doing much then and you could concentrate on what was going on.  For the rest, it was remote and unengaging at any level beyond the musical.  Fulljames and his team were strongly booed at the end and I’m afraid I supported the booers.

And I even had reservations about the music.  Michele Marriotti was making his house debut and, promisingly, was born in Pesaro.  I admired the elegance of his conducting and the way in which he caught the orchestral textures.  I found the onstage banda (apparently yet another innovation from the Rossini) rather tinny and irritating after a while.  I thought the orchestra played very well indeed.  What worried me was the tempi and the sheer lack of tension- a lot of the arias and the duets were slow and tended to stop and start.  I wanted them to move a notch more quickly and for there to be some sense of urgency and tension about them.  I wondered whether this was case of singers dictating to a less experienced conductor  or deliberate decisions.  Most of it sounded like a very charming salon party and added to the remoteness of the experience.  As I write this, I’m listening to Muti’s recording.  There are problems with many of the singers on it, but at least there is a sense of urgency and drama that struck me as entirely missing from this performance.

And all of this couldn’t but compromise the effectiveness of the singers.  Joyce DiDonato is always a joy to listen to and she sang Elena wonderfully from a technical point of view, crowning it with a glorious Tanti affetti.  I badly want to hear her here as Cenerentola, Ninetta, Adalgisa, Leonora in Favorita and loads more.  What I missed was any sense of character, of her going on some sort of journey or anything to interest beyond the singing.  I also wondered whether, in fact, she was right for the role.  Both Ricciarelli for Pollini and June Anderson for Muti provide a vulnerability that adds to the pathos.  Miss DiDonato doesn’t really do vulnerability and the mezzo-based timbre doesn’t achieve that as well as a true soprano does.

Juan Diego Flórez was predictably strong and stylish as the King – here called Uberto (as in his disguise, why not use the generally used Giacomo?).  He sings this kind of music brilliantly, making it sound easy and did his duets with Miss DiDonato idiomatically, giving lots of pleasure.  He sounded marginally more effortful than usual and there’s a whiteness to his voice which rather accentuates the strain.  He presented his usual charming character, with the usual gestures and never went beyond operatic stock.  I wonder whether Fulljames had a hope of getting more than this out of him.  I still can’t think of anyone I’d rather hear in these roles and it’s a joy to have him.

Daniella Barcellona is new to me and was outstanding as Malcom.  Here is a lovely, warm contralto who sings with admirable stylishness, making light of the technical problems of her music.  I want to hear her as Tancredi, Isabella, Rosina, Angelina and Arsace and I hope she’s back regularly.  She didn’t make much of the character.

Colin Lee was due to sing Rodrigo but was ill.  He was replaced by Michael Spyres who was due to make his debut in the role later in the run.  I was, frankly, uncertain about him.  He came across as an enormously confident singer who made a ringing entrance.  The top of the voice is strong and fluid – excellent for this sort of music.  He also has an entirely different lower register, sounding almost like a baritone – to the extent that I wondered if he were singing part of it an octave too low.  The effect of hearing at least two different registers, almost two different voices, in one aria is disconcerting and I wondered if this really was what Rossini was looking for.  I’m reserving judgement until I hear him again when it’s not an emergency.

Simón Orfila struck me as rather ordinary as Duglas but he did what the role was meant to do well enough.  Justina Gringyte made the most of her part as Albina and Robin Leggate sounded old as Serano.  The chorus were fine.

So I’m feeling deeply frustrated.  All my instincts tell me that, even though this may not be a blazing masterpiece like Ermione or some later romantic works, it’s an interesting and worthwhile piece in its own right and worth staging it with a cast of this calibre.  When I see it obscured and the effectiveness of the cast hampered a director and conductor who don’t seem willing to get a handle on it, it makes me angry.  I don’t suppose the Royal Opera House care – the eight performances are sold out and I can’t imagine that they’ll stage it again.  It alienates their supporters, though.

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