First Nighter: DiDonato, Brownlee Lift Heavy 'La Donna del Lago' at the Met

Since opera is first and foremost about the music -- and that certainly applies to Gioachino Rossini as much as or more than many composers -- it frequently means that the quality of any given production is secondary. Sometimes, however, that doesn't obtain.

Take, for example, the current and first-ever La Donna del Lago returning at the Metropolitan Opera House after Paul Curran's debut production last season -- conducted by Michele Mariotti with all its melodic appeal now as it was then. Then, it was Joyce DiDonato to whom the title role was entrusted, and for good reason. The reasoning holds now, too.

As the Scottish maid wooed by three men and finally choosing the least likely one, she's at her finest. (Sir Walter Scott wrote the jingoistic poem that Rossini, caught in an 1819 timing bind, turned to as source material.) DiDonato comes on strong with the coloratura and only gets more ravishing as she progresses to and through the final, outlandishly demanding scene.

One of the most intriguing features of the poem-turned-opera by librettist Andrea Leone Tottola is that Elena (formerly Ellen) isn't interested in King James V (Thomas Brownlee) and not because he's disguised as Uberto. She also isn't gone on Rodrigo (John Osborn), either. In the long run it's the pining Malcolm (Daniela Barcellona) to whom she cottons for the happy ending.

Her decision doesn't depend on which singer warbles the best, either. Brownlee, Osborn and Barcellona sing -- respectively as tenor, tenor and mezzo-soprano -- with equal vocal prowess throughout. Perhaps, since DiDonato and Barcellona are both mezzos, Rossini did have something in mind having to do with compatibility. Perhaps not.

Anyway, the musical elements here are handily taken care of -- and by Owen Gradus, Eduardo Valdes, Olga Makarina and Gregory Schmidt as well in the supporting roles. Showing themselves off in the usual polished manner are the Met chorus members under Donald Palumbo's reliable supervision.

But that gets around to the problems with this mounting. The large chorus is present for much of the first act, and Curran doesn't know where to stash them. This is a libretto hitch, of course, but the static stretches on Kevin Knight's dark basic set (isn't Knight nicely named for the material?) have a way of dulling the proceedings. By the two-scene act's conclusion La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) feels as if it's flailing in that body of water.

Then the second act turns up. It's as if someone else is guiding it. Its as if schizophrenia is operating. Because the chorus isn't as prominent, things immediately pick up. The first scene is especially alluring. In it, Uberto makes his play for Elena, but she puts him off with a can't-we-be-friends play. It works. How unusual is this outcome? Scan opera for a similar scene, and see if you find even one.

The final sequence in King James's court seems as if a golden sun has shone on it. Now the chorus, whom Knight has dressed sumptuously, is stationed with all due pomp. Elena's search among them for the real king--he's there as the most sumptuously garbed -- works well.

It's highly likely that audience members tempted to scram during the intermission are supremely pleased they hung around to give DiDonato, Brownlee and colleagues the ovation they earn.