Classical review: La donna del lago, Royal Opera house, London


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The Independent Culture

Who could take the plot of La donna del lago seriously? Probably not even its first audience in Naples.

The King is engaged in subduing his rebel Highlanders; Elena, daughter of rebel chief Douglas, has been promised by her father to the fiery Rodrigo, but she is clandestinely in love with rebel leader Malcolm who is played by a woman; the King falls in love with Elena, but when he realises his passion is not requited he blesses this rival union, and also pardons the rebels.

But the political underpinning is a convincing colonial paradigm. It concerns the taming of the Highlands, and John Fulljames’s production presents the misty medievalism of Sir Walter Scott’s tale as witnessed and imagined by a gathering of Victorian gentlemen. In an exquisite opening tableau, Elena seems to float like Millais’s Ophelia in an aqueous dream, with a craggy Highland landscape as a backdrop. But she’s actually in a glass display cabinet: courteously helped out of this, she then initiates the drama.

With the simplicity and strength of Dick Bird’s sets enhanced by Bruno Poet’s painterly lighting, this is a very stylish production where reality appears in constantly shifting perspectives: sometimes the boxes within the proscenium arch are occupied by Victorian spectators, other times they house the on-stage bands which were one of Rossini’s innovations. Fulljames’s directorial touch occasionally falters – the prissily tasteful scenes of mass rape go on interminably, and one gets tired of the over-used wedding-dress which is the symbol of Elena’s oppression. But by and large the stage movement is kept so slow and stately that we are allowed to concentrate fully on the singing, and this – brilliantly conducted by Michele Mariotti - is simply fabulous.

The opening duet between Juan Diego Florez (as the king) and Joyce DiDonato (Elena) serves notice that we are in the presence of two supreme bel cantists who might have been made for each other, so perfectly do they meld, while Daniella Barcellona’s Malcolm deploys contralto magnificence of a kind one rarely hears. Standing in at short notice as Rodrigo is the charismatic American tenor Michael Spyres, possessor of a sound to equal Florez’s in the high range while also able to deliver a wonderfully baritonal warmth.

As for DiDonato, words fail. No other singer could match what this blonde bombshell from Kansas does, marrying coloratura with the serene liquidity of birdsong to an expressiveness of heart-stopping beauty. Go, listen, and marvel.