John Fulljames’ new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, an opera that has not been seen at Covent Garden for 28 years, illustrates how countries can sanitise their history. Since Sir Walter Scott’s original poem was not based on specific historical events, this amounts to a commentary not on Scotland, but on the actual issue of myth making.
If the story is about a woman who is finally able to marry the man she loves, the backdrop is tribal war in which, stated bluntly, men are killed, land is pillaged and women are raped. Fulljames makes this point by opening the opera in a wooden panelled gallery in (presumably) 1810. Here the well-to-do of the day admire the weapons and armour used centuries earlier, as well as the clothes worn by Elena, Malcolm and Douglas. From here Elena (Joyce DiDonato) comes to life and takes the King of Scotland (Juan Diego Flórez) across the lake by gliding across the gallery floor on a model ship, before the stage opens out to transport us back to the sixteenth century.
If the opera shows how war can gloss over troubling difficulties, because Malcolm ultimately supports the loathsome Rodrigo when the Highlanders are attacked, the production takes this point several steps further. The supposedly heroic ‘Qual rapido torrente’ sees the soldiers raping the women as they sing, suggesting that rather than love being the reward of valour, war is an excuse to commit atrocities.
There are also many intelligent details. When Rodrigo and the King duel they are handed their swords from the cabinet where they lie centuries later, and the dividing line between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries is deliberately kept blurred. On one occasion, for example, the historical observers step outside of their own setting and are consequently forced to sport umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain.
The overall vocal line-up must rank amongst the very best ever witnessed at Covent Garden. Regarding Flórez, you always know that this most brilliant of tenors will give his all, effortlessly hitting every high note with an expansive sound that perfectly combines lightness with bite. Even allowing for this, however, there is something special about his performance of ‘O fiamma soave’, which utilises every aspect of his voice to create an almost hypnotic experience. His acting style is very much that of the showman, but is no less effective for that, and actually provides a pleasing complement to DiDonato’s more spiritual style. DiDonato performs at the height of her game with thrilling singing that demonstrates a wide range, brilliant sensitivity and dynamic variation, and an exquisite mastery of phrasing.
Vocally, however, this is not just the Juan and Joyce show. Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona makes a stunning Royal Opera debut as Malcolm with a deeply resonant voice that proves both rich and versatile enough to tackle every facet of her arias. No less impressive is Michael Spyres as Rodrigo whose lower register is blessed with power and grit, and who can be menacing or soft as required in the upper register. Spyres was set to play Rodrigo later in the run, but stepped in at short notice to replace an ailing Colin Lee on opening night. Simón Orfila, Robin Leggate and Justina Gringyte excel as Douglas, Serano and Albina, while in the pit Michele Mariotti catches the sweeping nature of the music while maintaining, for the most part, a firm grip on tempi.
The final scene proves the most captivating of experiences. DiDonato’s performance of ‘Tanti affetti’ is spellbinding, but the fact that this scene of reconciliation takes place before a number of hanging bodies, which are then hidden by a tartan backdrop, reminds us of the road that led to this point. The tartan seems to be of a generic brand, rather than signifying a particular clan, which also reinforces the notion that the original story has been dressed up and falsified. Similarly, as Elena finally goes to rest in her case (or coffin) she is draped in a tartan that we never saw her wear.
Surprisingly, on opening night there was a bout of booing for the production team in the worst case at Covent Garden since Rusalka last year. On that occasion, I disagreed with the act while somewhat agreeing with the judgment. This time around, I have to disagree with both.
There will be a live screening of La donna del lago at cinemas worldwide on 27 May 2013. For further details click here.
La donna del lago will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 15 June 2013.