La donna del lago – Royal Opera House

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OK, let’s accept that this is not the best Rossini, but we must admit that there are some very inspired moments, and a couple of the best arias he ever wrote. After telling you all how good they are the productions in London, this one was a disappointment. The idea was overthought, and pseudo-intellectual, globally incomprehensible.

May I remind you that this opera has a completely absurd plot, set in XVI century Scotland, with a king who tries to unify the country, and rebel clans that are against him, and keep being beaten by the royal army. The “lady of the lake” of the title, Elena, is the daughter of one of this rebels (Duglas, with this spelling), who has promised her in marriage to the most valiant warrior of the clan (Rodrigo, a typical Scottish name), while she is in love with another warrior, Malcolm (sung by a woman in a pants role). In the meantime the king, incognito, under the name of Uberto, falls in love with her and tries to woo her. In the end the clan loses the war, Rodrigo dies, the king forgives everybody and Malcolm and Elena live happily ever after.

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Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez

The production imagined the story as represented in a country club of sorts, in the early 1800, so that there were always a bunch of gentlemen in tailcoats and top hat on stage, watching the “performance”, sometimes they were dining, sometimes making comments. I don’t quite understand why. The characters of the opera were often closed in glass display cases, from which they came out to sing their bits. This further increases the distance of the real audience (us) from the story, which is already so weird that it certainly doesn’t need that. All in all, the idea doesn’t work, in my opinion.

Moreover, there were some tricks used over and over and over: a wedding dress, representing Elena’s oppression, which she keeps putting on and taking off for almost the whole first act. After the fifth time it gets boring.

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Daniela Barcellona and Joyce DiDonato

The Scottish warriors are some sort of Neanderthal men, ugly, dirty and mean, which is a good idea, but really, after 20 minutes of hints of war-rape, it really is more than enough. A good scene was when they are getting ready for the battle, painting their faces and hands with the blood of a mutton after cutting its throat. Very effective.

The conductor was the young Michele Mariotti (resident conductor in Bologna?), who had determination and authority. I was on the second row, so I could see him very well. The attacks always confident, the tempo was perfect, he really helped the chorus, which got a bit late more than once. The orchestra, as always, extremely precise and enjoyable, the horns deserve a pedestal each. The opera also features many moments when the orchestra is on stage, and the musicians acted and performed with great professionality.

Singers: not even in Rossini’s wildest dreams there could be a better cast.

Elena, the lady of the lake, was Joyce Di Donato. Her voice is superb, she has a complete command of the coloratura and she’s afraid of nothing. She did stuff that would have scared any soprano, and she’s a mezzo. Her Tanti affetti at the end of the opera was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard live.

Uberto, the incognito king, was Juan Diego Florez, and I know I’m repeating myself, but he gets better! Every time he gets better! The ring, the fast rolling vibrato are always there, more and more beautiful, and at the same time the voice gets fuller, a bit darker in the lower register, while the coloratura is more and more confident, and the high notes absolutely amazing. He and Di Donato gave a belcanto keynote: their first duet was a list of all the things that must be done right in Rossini, all of them, none excluded. Two singers born for Rossini, I’m not afraid of being called out if I say that nobody else in the world, in this moment, can sing Rossini better than them.

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Daniela Barcellona

Malcolm was  Daniela Barcellona, a 6ft tall Junoesque lady, and the director had the great idea to dress her with a ragged kilt and her hair ruffled, something that could be configured as “mobbing”. You don’t treat a lady like that. Enters this character, you don’t even have time to open your eyes wide in disbelief, and she, with no introduction whatsoever, attacks Mura felici, one of the most beautiful and hardest arias by our Gioachino (forget Celeste Aida, this one is a terrifying entrance).

Technical-philosophical digression

Barcellona’s voice has a Rossini contralto core, very masculine and powerful, robust, with great projection. As the voice goes up, after the first passaggio, the voice acquires metal, but not the metal of the golden bells featured by Florez or Di Donato. On the contrary, this is the metal of the door of an old Skoda when you slam it (SDENG!). This slightly unpleasant timbre forebodes high notes like a bunch of pots and pans hitting the floor, and instead, after the next passaggio (above a very precise note, I don’t know which one because, as you all know, I have the perfect pitch of a clam), here comes a MIRACLE! The voice opens up, it flourishes, it becomes smooth and round, with ochre and deep red colors, and it explodes in wonderful high notes of soprano quality.

Everything is kept together by an amazing technique and an extremely solid support (Barcellona’s diaphragm could move mountains), a perfect breathing style, which give her very confident agile notes, a wonderful coloratura.

Daniela Barcellona is the living proof that you should never give up in front of your voice’s faults; those faults should not be accepted, but again they should not be fought head-on. You must direct them, seduce them, drag them by the hair, sing through them, with the guidance given by a solid technique, refined in years of work. Technique is the only possible savior of a voice which may not be perfect, but it’s amazingly fascinating.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect metaphor for life.

All in all, Barcellona gave an excellent performance of a very difficult aria. After this feat, she was the most credible Scottish warrior on stage.

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Michael Spyres

Rodrigo was the tenor Michael Spyres, much glorified, but he didn’t convince me. I mean, his voice has a very beautiful center, very strong, and he also has extremely high notes, but the problem is that when he goes to the top register, he kind of chickens out, and the high notes come out a bit falsetto and a bit weak. I don’t mean to complain too much, I wish there were more tenors like this, but I didn’t find him exciting.

A disappointing production, a wonderful orchestra and super-star singers. But, for Christ’s sake, le puntature acute!! You don’t end Rossini arias on the high note, damn you all super-star singers, you just don’t!!!

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