On Wednesday evening, I went to the Met Opera to hear mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sing with the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez in La Donna del lago. This was not the first time I had attempted to hear this pair sing together. They had both been scheduled to appear last season in another Rossini opera, La Cenerentola, but on that occasion Flórez was forced to withdraw due to illness. His place was taken by Javier Camarena who went on to triumph in the role and in doing so became only the third singer in the Met's history to perform an encore onstage.
La Donna del lago, with a libretto written by Andrea Tottola, was the first opera to have been based on a work by Sir Walter Scott but by no means the last. Though today it seems incongruous that Italian opera should use Scottish tales of adventure as a source, Scott's novels and poems were actually made to order for a genre constantly in search of both exoticism and romanticism. As the Wikipedia article notes of Scott's work: "...it was 'deeply influential in the development of Italian romantic opera' to the extent that by 1840 (barely 20 years after this opera), there were 25 Italian operas based on his works, the most famous being Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835."
Furthering the romanticism that imbues this opera was the fact that both Scott and Tottola were deeply influenced while writing it by the poems of Ossian, a supposedly ancient Gaelic verse cycle transcribed by James Macpherson beginning in 1760. Though the authenticity of MacPherson's work was called into question even at the time of its publication, it was hugely influential in European culture in the early nineteenth century, especially in the development of the Sturm und Drang movement, and excerpts from it appear even in Goethe's Werther.
Whatever its source, the story certainly moved the action along quite quickly onstage. There were no lulls in this presentation. It began with the timeworn device of a king moving in disguise among commoners, followed by the threat of a forced marriage, Scottish rebels taking up arms against their rightful ruler, and a duel between love rivals before the opera finally reached its happy ending. All this was inestimably helped by Rossini's opera seria music. Of the works I've heard by this composer, I really thought this was his best and enjoyed it much more than his better known comic operas. The chorus was used effectively throughout and the bel canto arias given to the principal characters were uniformly beautiful. Considering how little time Rossini and Tottola had at their disposal to complete the opera, it was a magnificent achievement.
In their appearances at the Met this month, DiDonato and Flórez are actually reprising the roles of Elena and Uberto that they had previously sung to great acclaim in 2010 at the Paris Opera. Though Flórez's voice sounded a bit weaker in the first act than I had expected, by the beginning of the second act he was in full control. And DiDonato, if anything, surpassed her achievement last season in La Cenerentola. The remainder of the cast was equally fine. Special mention should be made of Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm and John Osborn as Rodrigo. Conductor Michele Mariotti gave a brilliant interpretation of Rossini's music.
This production is making its first appearance at the Met this season. It was created as a coproduction with the Santa Fe Opera where it had its premiere in July 2013; it was directed by Paul Curran who is appropriately enough a Scotsman himself. Unlike many of the Met's recent outings, this was a straightforward production that was not only highly pleasing to watch but, most importantly, didn't get in the way of the music itself.
All in all, this was a highly satisfactory performance by all involved and one of the Met's most successful presentations this season. I highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance to attend.