Months ago I wrote about Wagner´s "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" in the staging of New York´s Metropolitan Opera. It was a link in the chain of live operas seen via satellite in many cities of the world, a selection of their season. It is a splendid idea that has opened the hearts and minds of audiences to the excellence of that institution.
I chose "The Mastersingers" simply because of an abstinence syndrome: I hadn´t seen it live since 1989 at the Liceo of Barcelona, and I believe it is one of the greatest comedies in music, unaccountably unstaged in Buenos Aires since 1980 (there´s something Darío Lopérfido, the new Colón Director, should remedy in 2016). The 2014-5 season, as seen in BA, presents an eclectic bunch of eleven operas and one operetta in several languages: Italian, French, German, English (a translation of the original German: Lehár´s "The Merry Widow" instead of "Die lustige Witwe"), Russian and Hungarian.
Most titles are well-known, habitual repertoire, but three are out-of-the-way: Tchaikovsky´s "Iolanta" and Bartók´s "Bluebeard´s castle" (both have been seen at the Colón), and a première for the Met, never done here: Gioacchino Rossini¨s "La donna del lago". I have long known it through the CDs conducted by Maurizio Pollini (first and last time in that capacity) with some admirable singers: Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Katia Ricciarelli, Dalmacio Gonzales, Dano Raffanti and Samuel Ramey. It was recorded in 1983 and it derived from the Rossini Festival at Pesaro.
At the time it came as a shock, for I found in it clear advances of Romanticism from an author that up to then (and for many years after) was faithful to his roots in Classicism. Some dates: "L´Italiana in Algeri", 1813; "Elisabetta, Regina d´Inghilterra", 1815 (offered at the Colón in 2004); "Il barbiere di Siviglia", 1816; "Ermione", 1819, based on Racine´s "Andromaque", presented at our theatre in 1992; the same year, "La donna del lago"; several comedies and dramas still based on Classicism, such as "Semiramide" (Voltaire); and finally, in 1829, that "Guillaume Tell" based on Schiller that for the second and definitive time gave us many inklings of Romanticism.
"La donna del lago" is an Italian adaptation by Andrea Leone Tottola of a narrative poem by Walter Scott, "The Lady of the Lake". Written in 1810, it became very popular, and for decades Nineteenth Century tourists thronged the Trossachs of Perthshire and Loch Katrine, attracted by the Romantic charm of the writing that evokes such places. Seen retrospectively, Rossini´s opera has some elements that were later developed by Donizetti in his Scott-based "Lucia di Lammermoor".
The action happens during the Civil War between James V of Scotland and the Highlands Clan. James had a short life (1512-42) but an eventful one. King since 1513 under the regency of his mother Margaret, daughter of Henry VII of England, he was held prisoner by Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, from 1525 to 1528, "and in the latter year assumed control of his kingdom. He was a vigorous and just king...He waged war against his uncle, King Henry VIII of England, and was defeated at Solway Moss...His daughter, later to become Mary, Queen of Scots, was about a week old when James died" (Ruthven Todd).
Well, Ellen is the Lady of the Lake, and the King under an assumed name falls in love with her before knowing she´s the daughter of Douglas. It so happens that he wants to marry her with the Scottish chieftain Roderick Dhu, great warrior, but she is in love with Malcolm Graeme. So three men are after her but she loves only Malcolm (paradoxically, a mezzo soprano in kilts, not quite a trouser role...). After many episodes, the King beats the clan, Roderick dies, and James magnanimously pardons Douglas and gives Ellen in marriage to Malcolm.
The Tottola libretto is very conventional and little remains of the colourful Scott original, but it serves the composer acceptably, and Rossini is very inspired melodically, as well as orchestrating with a knack for atmosphere and nature, even with an offstage band. It´s certainly worth knowing and there are fireworks for all the main singers.
This sort of piece can only be done with a great cast, and it certainly has one in this case (that´s why the Met dared this première). We have admired in BA both Joyce Di Donato and Luis Diego Flórez in Mozarteum concerts. But we haven´t seen them in opera; we should, they are stunning. She not only sings with wonderful ease and beautiful timbre, she has a very winning personality and is an excellent actress. And he is a nonpareil bel canto singer, of fantastic high notes.
Tenor John Osborn also shows abundant and stupefying highs in his arrogant Roderick, and mezzo Daniela Barcellona may not have the "physique du rôle" for
Malcolm, but she is an accomplished artist with strong dramatic projection and fluid coloratura. Eduardo Valdés and Olga Makarina give strong support.
Of course, the Choir and Orchestra of the Met are among the best in the world, and I am happy to say that young conductor Michele Mariotti is a true find, with fine ear for balance and tempi. Paul Curran´s production respects time and place, though some psychological details escape him or seem wrong. Stage designs by Kevin Knight and lighting by Duana Schuler seem rather murky, but the costumes are good.
For Buenos Aires Herald