LADIES, 3; LAKES, 0
Below is a slightly edited review by Charles Jernigan, of the Pesaro 2013 performance of La donna del Lago, as well as performances at Covent Garden and Santa Fe during the same summer!! Thanks,as always,to Pro.Jernigan for his contributions to rossiniamerica.org!
LADIES, 3; LAKES, 0
This year’s ( 2013) Rossini Opera Festival in his hometown of Pesaro, Italy, ended with a concert performance of his opera La donna del Lago, The Lady of the Lake, based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem. (There have been )… three different ‘productions’ (if an opera presented in concert form can be considered a ‘production’) of this rarely done work this summer, beginning with a staged performance at London’s Covent Garden (May and ) June, continuing with Santa Fe Opera’s production in late July and early August, and ending with this Italian performance on August 23.
Granted that a concert performance is not really comparable to a staged version, but in some ways it was a relief to be able to concentrate on the music since the London stage production rated a “F” in my estimation and the one in Santa Fe rated only a “C.” (Ex-professors have a hard time getting away from the traditional grading method.) Musically, however, both London and Santa Fe gave us superbly sung performances.
Much of the opera (and Scott’s poem) takes place on the shores of the lake of the title, specifically Loch Katrine (pictured above) in Scotland’s Trossochs region. The heroine, Elena (Ellen) arrives and departs in a boat on the lake and she lives in a house on an island in the middle of the lake, thus the “Lady of the Lake.” Therefore it was something of a surprise that neither of the staged productions … had a lake anywhere in sight. True, there was a boat (a small model of a three-masted schooner in a glass case) in the London production, but Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez would have been hard put to get in it as the libretto vainly requests. When the librettist wrote, “Come with me in my little boat,” I doubt that he was thinking of one of those plastic model kits that you put together with model glue when you are a kid.
(I have to say that the libretto of William Tell, which Pesaro performed this summer (2013), calls for both a river and a lake, not to mention waterfalls and glaciers, but the production offered none of those. It did offer a small boat, which was hooked to chains and lifted to flies above the stage when it was called on to sail away, so the lake in La donna del lago was not the only operatic body of water to go dry this summer.) Of course one would not expect a lake in a concert performance, and it was a relief not to have one’s expectations doomed to disappointment yet again. So in all three ‘productions’, it was Lakes-0; but since all three boasted formidable donne, ‘Ladies–3′.
La donna del lago is one of nine operas that Rossini composed for Naples’ San Carlo opera house at the height of his career between 1815 and 1822. One reason that so few of those operas are performed today is that the San Carlo boasted the most extraordinary “stable” of singers in Europe at the time, including several tenors whose techniques and high notes were so amazing that, with a few exceptions, only in the last decade have we had singers who could sing the music Rossini wrote. The fine mezzo Isabella Colbran, who would become the composer’s first wife, sang the lead role while another, deeper, mezzo (or contralto), Rosmunda Pisaroni, sang the trouser role of Malcolm. Douglas, Elena’s father, is a bass whose role is not major, but King James V, disguised as “Uberto,” is a high tenor role and his rival, the Highland Chieftain, Rodrigo, is what we might call a bari-tenor, that is a tenor able to sing very high notes but also able to descend into the baritone register. Originally the roles were sung by Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari, respectively. The bari-tenor is an unusual species today, and although Colin Lee in London managed to sing it, Rene Barbera in Santa Fe had ringing high notes, but his voice faded away when he had to descend into the baritone register. In Pesaro this year the Rodrigo was Michael Spyres, who hails from Missouri, and who is gaining a major reputation as a tenor in this repertory. Based on the evidence of this performance, he is a true bari-tenor, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound (excuse me, I got my heroes mixed up)–able to sing high notes with ease and plunge to low ones with a full and resonant voice. A friend who has a better ear than I do assured me that he reached a “D” above high “C.”
Our other tenor in Pesaro was the Russian Dimitri Korchak, a singer with bright, loud high notes, but not on the same level as Florez (London) or Lawrence Brownlee (Santa Fe). Having two extraordinary tenors at his disposal, Rossini wrote one of the most exciting confrontations for two tenors in opera. The piece starts as a duet between Elena and “Uberto,” and then turns into a trio when Rodrigo shows up unexpectedly. The vocal duel between the two tenors is one of the most memorable parts of the opera, but the tenor voices cannot sound alike, and this time they did not.
Korchak and Spyres were the two fairly well-known singers in the Pesaro concert; the two women, Elena and Malcolm (the trouser role) were both young, unknown singers. The Rossini Festival has a habit, a policy really, of pairing known singers with young promising ones, whether the habit is dictated by noble intention or financial necessity. Sometimes it works very well, sometimes not. The two women were Carmen Romeu as Elena and Chiara Amaru` as Malcolm. Amaru` had a deep, rich voice and the necessary coloratura skill for her two arias, but no one will ever efface the memory of Marilyn Horne for those of us who heard her in this role. Ms. Romeu, on the other hand, while perfectly competent, was not particularly memorable–but she had the almost impossible task of following the two productions I saw with Joyce DiDonato in that role. She seemed to me to possess more of a soprano voice than a mezzo-soprano.
The Bologna orchestra and chorus was conducted by the octogenarian Alberto Zedda, a principal with the Festival for all its years and a Rossini expert. Zedda gave all of us a real scare when at the end of the andante of Rodrigo’s entrance aria, he put down his baton, looked confused and started to totter on the podium before several orchestra members rushed to his aid. A doctor was summoned and Zedda led offstage, and there was an unexpected pause of about 30 minutes. Finally, it was announced that the Maestro was feeling better and he resumed the performance, conducting while standing, and with great vigor, until the end. However, they had cranked up the air conditioning and he had shed his formal tux coat with tails. Perhaps he had become overheated. In any event, the performance was telecast live, and for free, to a large audience in Pesaro’s central piazza, and so several hundred more people got to see The Lady Without a Lake.
August 26, 2013