Joyce DiDonato: A magical Elena in Met’s ‘La Donna del Lago’

Starring magical mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato—this Met in HD production was an extraordinarily brilliant excursion into Rossini’s lesser-known serious operas.

Joyce DiDonato.
Joyce DiDonato as Elena in the NY Metropolitan Opera production of Rossini's "La Donna del Lago." (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, March 19, 2015 – Just prior to wrapping up its first production of Rossini’s “La donna del lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”), the Met treated its worldwide fans to an HD broadcast of that opera this week via movie theater screens across the country and around the world.

Those who purchased tickets and attended last weekend’s Saturday simulcast or its repeat broadcast Wednesday will readily acknowledge that this production—starring the magical mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato—was an extraordinary and memorable afternoon (or evening) of opera indeed.

In the U.S. at least, Rossini is most famous for his immensely enjoyable and entertaining comic operas, particularly “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella.” With some opera companies, one or both of these comic jewels are frequently on the season menu.

Less known on these shores, however, are this composer’s more serious operas. “La donna del lago,” based on a memorable, swashbuckling Scottish story-poem by Sir Walter Scott, is certainly one of them.

This story’s ever-intertwining cast of contentious Scottish characters is something of a challenge, not to mention the fact that all Scott’s characters’ proper names are transformed into their Italian equivalents, but we’ll give it a try.

Our heroine, Elena (DiDonato), is a nice Scottish girl who happens to be the daughter of Duglas d’Angus (bass Oren Gradus) a blustery Scottish laird who at one time had been the tutor of the current Scottish King, Giacomo V (James V), portrayed by tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who spends much of his time on stage in disguise.

Elena has fallen in love with a passionate warrior clansman named Malcolm (mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in a trouser, umm, kilt role), but there’s a problem with that.

Duglas has turned on his one-time student, incurring the king’s wrath, and finds he must unite with other already-rebellious clansmen led by the hot-headed Rodrigo (John Osborn). To cement the union of their forces, Duglas orders Elena to marry Rodrigo, a move that crushes his daughter while effectively forcing Malcolm to unite his forces under Rodrigo and forget Elena forever—something Malcolm simply cannot do.

Still from Lady of the Lake.
Elena (Joyce DiDonato) tries to keep her would-be lovers at bay. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Just to complicate things further, Elena, early in the opera, encounters a wandering stranger named Uberto (Flórez), who is actually the king in disguise, wandering about the craggy countryside to scope out potential fields of battle. Unfortunately for both of them, he instantly falls in love with Elena, who now must fend off two suitors while figuring out how to end up with Malcolm. It doesn’t look good for anyone here. But eventually things are sorted out, more or less, resulting in a happy ending—more or less.

With all the overplotting in this opera, things could have turned out messy indeed. But with crisp direction by Paul Curran, this production, co-produced with the Santa Fe Opera, which ran with it first under his direction in 2013, both characters and narrative lines become clear against a simple but usefully evocative scenic backdrop featuring a stony outcrop in the foreground and an ever-changing cloudy and mountainous projected background that’s reminiscent of Santa Fe’s open-backed, shotgun-style outdoor stage.

Clad in largely traditional Scottish garb, the singers can easily navigate this space bringing character and personality to the fore even as their director maneuvers successfully to get them as close to the audience as practical. And so the stage was set for this astonishingly moving production.

The primary cast of singers here will likely not be bettered. At the top of the list, of course, is DiDonato. Her acting and singing here, in the best bel canto tradition, are surprisingly but deeply moving, adding an emotional punch that at times of crisis is nearly palpable. In Elena’s showy arias, she excels to an almost indescribable degree, shaping notes, phrases and indeed her entire character into a richly human woman driven nearly mad by the array of bad choices that seem to surround her.

Hers is an immensely powerful and passionate performance alternating quiet, contemplative moments with passionate outbursts that are greatly enhanced by DiDonato’s uncanny ability to negotiate Rossini’s unbelievably challenging ornamentation, particularly in this opera’s triumphal concluding aria, “Tanti affetti.”

DiDonato is fortunate in this production to find herself besieged by a trio of suitors who were also at the top of their vocal game during the Met’s HD simulcast.

First and foremost was the performance of tenor Juan Diego Flórez. As dashing an almost-leading man as you’re likely to see on stage (the king, alas, doesn’t get the girl), Flórez gives a dashing, athletic, ultra-passionate performance in this production, breezing through his many difficult arias as movingly and as perfectly as DiDonato negotiates her own. Each time he makes an entrance, this production literally bursts into brilliance even in the midst of a gloomy Scottish landscape. He is as athletic and dashing a hero as we are likely to see these days on the opera stage.

King James V, by Juan Diego Flórez.
Oops. Looks like the humble Uberto was really King James V (Juan Diego Flórez) This changes everything. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Almost as flashy is tenor John Osborne as Rodrigo, Elena’s intended, at least as far as her father is concerned. Rossini wrote both tenor roles to express different manifestations of the tenor voice. Flórez mainly traverses the lower and middle ranges in the king’s distinctly romantic part. Osborne’s Rodrigo, on the other hand, is a warrior first, a lover second, both personality traits being expressed in the somewhat higher range of his part. It’s another outstanding performance.

With all these high notes being hurled about, bass Oren Gradus’ Duglas supplies the necessary ballast to this production, particularly in the ensembles. Low, gruff and sometimes grave, Gradus brings some highland toughness and authority to his role, providing vocal and dramatic contrast to the vocal mix.

Last but certainly not least was the impressively convincing performance of mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm in that trouser/kilt role we mentioned earlier.

In terms of 21st century verisimilitude, it helped visually that Barcellona was physically more imposing than the petite DiDonato. But what’s key in bringing roles like this one to a 2015 audience is a female singer’s grasp of the male presence, adding just the right amount of boldness and swagger without turning the whole part into a caricature.

This transformation was accomplished to near perfection by Barcellona. And of course it helped that her deeper, contrasting mezzo-soprano, when paired with DiDonato’s differing style, provided the same kind of interesting contrast as was also experienced in the pairing of tenors Flórez and Osborne. Points to both the composer for creating these opportunities, and kudos to these four singers for executing these parts beautifully and convincingly.

Minor characters in this production, as well as the Metropolitan Opera chorus, lend vigorous support to the rest, making this entire production notable for the elegance, excitement and passion of its singing.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Italian guest conductor Michele Mariotti, accompanied the singers accurately and with understated perfection, creating, along with the cast, a nearly picture-perfect blend of instruments and vocals that couldn’t be faulted.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

If you missed this wonderful production, either live at the Met or at this past week’s HD telecasts, it’s likely the Met will revive this one in a season or three, perhaps with virtually the same cast, so brilliant and memorable were these performances.

Coming up at the Met in HD: In the meantime, however, there’s one final Met in HD simulcast on tap. Coming up at 12:30 p.m. April 25 will be that popular classic pairing of two enduring one-act verismo tragedies, Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticano” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” We’ll be there. So should you.

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  • Pam Spurgers

    I loved this production. I saw the HD telecast on 03/14/2015. Is there a possibility that a DVD will be released by the Met?

    • Terry

      Hi Pam,

      I tried to reply offline but not sure it went thru. At any rate, I’ve noticed that the Met often releases its Met in HD performances on DVDs roughly a year or so from the date of the simulcast. So we can surmise that a DVD of “Donna del Lago” might come out in the spring of 2016 or so. I’ll query the Met’s front office after the holidays to see if I can get any more info on this. Since I’m not exactly the New York Times, I’m not sure how much info these folks will give me, but I’ll give it a try! (I’ll probably pick up a copy myself if it’s offered.)

      Meanwhile, a happy Memorial Day Holiday to you and to all our opera loving readers.

      • Pam Spurgers

        Hi, Terry. Thanks for replying. I appreciate any info you might discover about a DVD. Just found your email. Have great week.