La donna del lago

 

Rossini La donna del lago opera to libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. Directed 2015 by Paul Curran at the Met with assistant directors Sara Erde, Gregory Keller, and Elise Sandell. Stars Joyce DiDonato (Elena), Juan Diego Flórez (King Giacomo V (James V) disguised as Uberto), John Osborn (Rodrigo), Daniela Barcellona (Malcolm Groeme), Oren Gradus (Douglas), Olga Makarina (Albina, Elena's confidant), Eduardo Valdes (Serano, a servant to Douglas), and Gregory Schmidt (Bertram, servant to the King). Michele Mariotti conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Master Donald Palumbo). Musical preparaton by Dennis Giauque, Donna Racik, Gregory Buchalter, Joshua Greene, and Liora Maurer. Sets by Kevin Knight; costumes designed by Kevin Knight with Ryan Moller; lighting by Duane Schuler; projection designs by Driscoll Otto with David Bengali; stage band conductor is Gregory Buchalter.  Directed for HD TV by Gary Halvorson; music producer was Jay David Saks. Supervising Producers were Mia Bongiovanni and Elena Park; Producers were Louisa Briccetti and Victoria Warivonchik. Released in 2015, has LPCM stereo (48kHz/24-bit) and 5.1 Dolby Digital (48kHz) surround sound. Grade: A

This is the first HDVD version of this under-appreciated work. Here's a bit of background: It's a fact that James V (1512-1542) was King of Scotland. Legend says he liked to travel about his kingdom in disguise. Imagination also has it that James, while trying to increase taxes, ran afoul of Rodrigo, chief of a powerful clan. The warriors Douglas and Malcolm also supported Rodrigo. Douglas had beautiful daughter, Elena, who lived at Lake Katrine. Elena secretly plighted her troth to Malcolm. But things got complicated with her father Douglas, for political reasons, promised her hand to Rodrigo. The complications increased when King James, disguised as Uberto, visited Elena and fell in love with her also. Civil war broke out. Elena was distressed about which hero to marry. But she was even more distressed watching the Scots heroes trying to kill each other.

The lyric-coloratura mezzo Joyce DiDonato would probably be No. 1 on every casting manager's list for Elena, the Lady of the Lake:

And Juan Diego Flórez, the leading Rossini and bel canto tenor in the world right now, would have to be a perfect King James V (Giacomo V). King James lives, I think, in the Lowlands of Scotland. He is trying to extend his power to the Highlands as well. But several Highland clans are furiously resisting this encroachment by the King on their traditional freedom. King James is also unmarried and looking for a wife. He heard about a mysterious and beautiful Highland lass called the "Lady of the Lake." James decided to put on his disguise as Uberto in an effort to quietly slip into Highland territory and meet the beautiful girl.  In the view below, James has found Elena and, claiming to be lost, asks for directions. You can see the lake indistinctly in the background:

Elena invites Uberto to her modest cottage. This was safe because Elena knows her girlfriends will soon arrive at the cottage to gossip. Uberto is surprised by all these chaperones. But this still doesn't keep him from falling madly in love with Elena while we are treated to delightful singing from the women's chorus. Below we see Elena's best friend Albina (Olga Makarina) take charge. Albina is used to protecting Elena from amorous men, so she slyly brings up Rodrigo, who has asked to marry Elena:

King James was shocked to hear about Rodrigo, the lead warrior resisting James' authority. The King is even more shocked to learn that Elena is the daughter of Douglas, another rebelling warrior. But all these new dangers only serve to increase the King's ardour for Elena:

Elena is flattered by the stranger's attention, but Elena already has a secret sweetheart, the Highland warrior Malcolm (played by mezzo Daniela Barcellona, who appears in trousers, or rather, in kilt).

King James leaves rather quickly rather than risk running into Rodrigo or Douglas behind enemy lines. This was smart, because suddenly Douglas does visit his daughter. The purpose of his visit is to discuss his plan to marry Elena off to Rodrigo (who might soon be King of the Highlanders or perhaps of all Scotland): 

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Malcolm visits Elena next. Their love is hidden; not even Albina knows. But now the proposed marriage between Elena and Rodrigo is a most unwelcome development. In a gorgeous duet, Elena and Malcolm reaffirm their mutual love and secretly plight their troth:

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The only hero who doesn't visit Elena this day was Rodrigo. As you see in the next screenshot, he's busy in the field raising his Highlander army. (The Met ordered general mobilization and cancelled all vacations and leaves for male chorus members.)

And here's a close-up of John Osborn as Rodrigo:

Albina and the ladies bring Elena into the Highlanders' field camp to marry Rodrigo. Malcolm is also there, and Elena goes to pieces. Rodrigo is shocked, but soon figures it out that Elena is in love with Malcolm. There follows a thrilling number for quartet and chorus as everybody sings that they "have lost their peace of mind forever":

But suddenly warning arrives that King James and his army are approaching in a forced march to attack the Highlanders! Rodrigo immediately orders his army to prepare for battle:

The priests and bards act out an exotic war ritual:

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Up to now, Rossini has plied us with numerous solos, duets, trios, quartets, and choral ensembles. In the finale of Act 1, he has a surprise: he turns the stage over to Albina, who up to now has had a most modest supporting role, to sing solo in the great battle hymn:

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Well, I'm not going to tell you what happens to the armies and the heroes. But while the battle rages, the King slips back into his Uberto disguise to declare once more his love for the Lady of the Lake:

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James knows when he's beat. Before he leaves, he tells The Lady that the King once gave him a precious ring. Whoever returns the ring to the King will receive from the King whatever help the supplicant needs. James tells the Lady, "If you need help for yourself. . . :

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In March 2015, the Met showed this production in movie theaters in 70 countries. The greatest challenge today in the fine-arts entertainment business must be to show an opera production in real time to movie theaters in an environment where everything has be done perfectly (the first and only time) in a single continuous take. The Met has mastered this. They also have from each of these HD Live transmissions a  durable video record. Erato published this record of La donna del lago early in November 2015 in Blu-ray. It immediately jumped to the top seller position on MDT in England and remains there 2 months later. Why is this performance of an obscure work such a hit?

La donna del lago is pretty obscure. It's not listed in The Groves Book of Operas and the wikipedia article on the life of Rossini doesn't mention it either. On the other hand, it's not exactly sunken treasure---it has been staged a few times in recent decades in prominent opera houses.

I think it's a hit in part because the Met did everything right and word of mouth is acknowledging this. You can see the beautiful sets, costumes, and lighting from the screenshots. The casting is superb. All the star singers and every member of the chorus can also act. Paul Curran directed everything to satisfy the live audience and to make it look good on TV---that's two different products from one actual show on the stage!

Both the libretto and music to La donna del lago arequite satisfying. The conflicts of the ambitious men over the girl don't seem contrived. And the overlay of the girl agonizing about the dangers to her countrymen (big in Act 2) gives the libretto real depth. The orchestration and vocal parts seem to me to be much closer to Guillaume Tell, which I adore, than say,  La Cenerentola, which I consider an acquired taste even though I know it's good for me. If you like the bell canto operas (which came later), I think you will be happy with La donna del lago. Finally, young Michele Mariotti is an expert in Rossini and gets great results from the Met orchestra. The sound recording is close, full of detail, and well balanced with the voices of the singers.

For a long time the Met management ignored the Blu-ray market because they were convinced that distribution via theaters and the Internet rendered all optical discs obsolete. The Met has done well at  the movie houses and is now the world's opera house for customers who are willing to go out. But nobody (including the Met) has an Internet product that works for the home market. Now the Met sees this and is  trying to take advantage of demand for Blu-ray discs in the HTs. In fact, I think there's now pent-up demand for good Met shows on Blu-ray. And in the case of La donna del lago, the Met disc is the only HD video available. Add all this up and you've got a hit.

The only critical comments I'd have would be that the video resolution of this HD Live product is not quite as sharp as some of the best products we have that were shot with the home theater audience primarily in mind. The video images we see in our HTs are better than what you see in the movie houses, so we expect more. Also, Dolby Digital surround sound is no longer state-of-the-art. Still, the PQ and SQ on subject disc are fully enjoyable and Erato is selling this title at a sensible price point. 

I would give this title an "A+," but I reduce the grade to an "A" because of the weaknesses mentioned in PQ and SQ.