It is always a special occasion when the Metropolitan Opera stages a premiere and its first production of Rossini's melodious and stirring La Donna del Lago boasts the exquisite Joyce DiDonato in the title role and Juan Diego Florez as the Scottish king who is captivated by her.
DiDonato, looking very bonny as the red-haired Ellen Douglas, takes control of the evening from her opening aria, a tender and delicate "O mattutini albori," and by the time of her breathtaking "Tanti affetti" in the grand finale she has scored a major triumph.
Florez, looking regal if not exactly Scottish, is one of bel canto opera's star tenors, best known for his high C's, and he has a couple in his role of King James V. An added bonus in this Met premiere is a sterling performance by the Italian mezzo Daniella Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcolm, the Highlander rebel who loves and is beloved by Ellen.
It is an exciting evening of a rarely-performed opera that the Met will reprise seven more times this season and which will be shown to audiences around the world on March 14 when the matinee performance is simulcast to more than 2,000 theaters in 69 countries.
Rossini, best known for his comic operas, was a prolific composer who was also adept at opera seria. He wrote his first opera at the age of 18 and composed some three dozen others before retiring at the age of 37 after completing William Tell, the overture to which is a staple for high school orchestras and fans of "The Lone Ranger."
La Donna del Lago comes in the middle of his output and was written in just four months for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, where it premiered in 1819. It is based on the long narrative poem The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott, which had been published just a few years earlier, and was the first of some two dozen operas written by various composers on Scott's works, the most familiar being Lucia di Lammermoor.
The action takes place during an uprising by rebellious Highlander clans against King James V of Scotland. The king, wandering the countryside in disguise as the commoner Hubert, chances to meet Ellen, the daughter of Douglas Angus, the king's former tutor and now one of his foes.
Ellen lives in a cottage on Loch Katrine (thus the title). She is in love with Malcolm, but her father has promised her to Roderick, the leader of the rebels. When the stranger Hubert makes advances toward her, she is flattered but turns him away. He later gives her a ring which he promises will grant her an audience with the king should she ever need one.
There is a battle, which the rebels lose, and Ellen sets out to cash in her ring and appeal for mercy for her father and Malcolm. She is surprised to find that Hubert is none other than King James himself. It all ends happily, unusual for opera seria or for Sir Walter Scott, for that matter.
The new production from the Scottish director Paul Curran had some distinctive touches (severed heads on staffs after the battle, for example, or some trees carried onstage by extras that makes one think of Birnam wood marching on Dunsinane) but some odd ones as well. And there are some awkward moments when the singers simply smile at each other while waiting for the next musical cue, or, in the case of the chorus of soldiers, milling about clamping one another on the shoulder.
The set for most scenes is a simple, nondescript plain of some sort, broken only by Ellen's cottage, which rises out of the floor for the second scene, and an opulent court for King James V at the end (men in doublets and bare-shouldered women in ruffs, all in ivory white) and more what one would expect from Queen Elizabeth's court in London later in the century.
La Donna del Lago also represented something of a departure for Rossini in his expanded use of choruses. A chorus opens the opera and another closes it and there are several others in between. The always-excellent Met chorus contributes an inspired performance, as does the orchestra under the baton of Michele Mariotti, a native of Rossini's hometown of Pesaro, Italy.
The singing makes up for any quibbles about the staging. DiDonato manages to make credible drama out of a fairly incredible romantic tale. Vocally she is at the top of her game. Technically a mezzo, her range is such that she can easily take soprano roles and soar. She is also a first-rate actress, convincing both as the maiden in love we first meet and as the reluctant bride-to-be. Her smile alone would melt any king's heart.
Florez is a tenor who for the most part simply stands and sings, using three or four basic gestures (extended arm, clinched fist, arms crossed on his chest) to convey emotion. But his ringing voice, especially in those high notes, has lost none of its force, especially in his one big aria, "O fiamma soave."
Barcellona, a mezzo from Trieste, conveys all the sorrow of thwarted love through a tender, hushed pianissimo that carries through the house, then climbs to silvery heights. Her love duet with DiDonato, each singer in perfect sync, is enchanting. As Rodrigo, the Iowa tenor John Osborn delivered a rousing call to arms in a full, rich voice, though his upper register was a bit shaky at times. And the Brooklyn-born bass Oren Gradus was strong as Douglas.