Monday, March 16, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Hidden in Plain Sight" (on Rossini's La donna del lago)

hidden in plain sight
by Douglas Messerli

Andrea Leone Tottola (libretto, based on the poem by Sir Walter Scott), Gioachino Rossini (music) La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) / New York, The Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast, March 14, 2015

Poor Elena (Joyce DiDonato), the lovely lady who lives on the banks of a Scottish loch. Hardly has the sun risen and she has three men in love with her, Rodrigo Di Dhu (John Osborn), the leader of Highland Clan rebelling against the King, Malcolm Groeme (Daniella Barcellona), the warrior with whom she is deeply in love, and a lost hunter Uberto (Juan Diego Flórez), who, unbeknownst to her, is Giacomo V, the King to whom her father is opposed. It’s little wonder that all the local women flutter about her small cottage since all the important men in the territory are drawn to its denizen? 

     The central problem of Act I is that Elena’s father has promised her to Rodrigo as symbol of his commitment to the revolution, while his daughter has eyes only for Malcolm, who, at least in this Metropolitan Opera version, is played by another mezzo-soprano (as host Patricia Racette joked in her introduction, “In this opera mezzo-soprano gets mezzo-soprano”). Elena, accordingly must negotiate a treaty between her heart and her filial duty, a peace that will end the internal war she is suffering. Ironically her dilemma is temporarily solved with the outbreak of general hostilities. Thus the inner struggle becomes a social one which even she cannot resist in supporting, singing along with the Clan rebels “Già un raggio forier.”

      Act II—particularly with its beautiful solo sung by still-wandering Uberto (“Oh fiamma soave”) and the even more powerful duet which follows, in which she pleads for what opera seldom offers its heroines, a deep friendship that respects her love for another man—finds her once again internally conflicted.  If there were ever evidence of true love, Giacomo (still pretending to be Uberto, but admitting his allegiance to the King) symbolically marries her by offering her a ring that he promises, if she or her family find themselves in danger, will protect her. Particularly in this production, this event provides at least some element of credence, given the fact that, outside of the “lie” of the opera, Elena claims to prefer marrying her own sex as opposed to Flórez, one of the most handsome of operatic singers. 
     The King may have promised to protect her, but he clearly must punish the man to whom she is engaged, Rodrigo, for his treason. In killing him, however, Giacomo saves Elena for Malcolm, who along with her father, now sits in his prison.
      If the scenario has appeared to be quite unbelievable up to this point, it now turns in to pure fairy tale, as  the pomp and circumstance of the court is revealed (this Scottish court, evidently, wore costumes that might have seemed more at home in Renaissance Italy). In the midst of the glitter of the court pageantry, Elena cannot even find the King, who stands beside her in his royal trappings as her friend Uberto. Dramatically, his real identity is revealed before her very eyes as he is crowned and she returns the ring, freeing her father, lover and herself in the same moment to become loving subjects of the King who has spared their lives and permitted them their true destinies.

     If one had any qualms about the story, no one with a good set of ears might find the work lacking in its musical gifts. Here it is spectacularly evident that even the most far-fetched and hackneyed of plots can be redeemed by the perfection of singers DiDonato, Flórez, Osborn, and Barcellona, to say nothing of Oren Gradus as Duglas and Olga Makarina as Albina. Perhaps the Met had never before performed this highly Romantic work until now because no such brilliant casting had previously been available. If the opera once might have seemed forgettable (and, fortunately, under the conducting skills of Michele Mariotti, it is not) the singing took this work into the stratosphere, with the final choruses ringing in the ears long after the curtain falls. The Met audience stayed long and cheered wildly for the four leads of this Rossini oddity, which will now surely be among the standard repertoire for years to come.

Los Angeles, April 16, 2015
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2015).           


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