La Donna Del Lago is the opera that comes round every couple of decades when a performer can command its staging. In the 1980s it was June Anderson who sang the role and now Joyce Didonato has been the compelling Elena of our times that has managed to sing the part since 2010 in Geneva, Paris, Milan and now good ol’ Covent Garden. This was meant to be a co-production with La Scala and the Opéra but as the artistic director of the Royal Opera deemed it a disaster area and commissioned a new production (with a limited budget) by John Fulljames. The awful chain mail costumes that weighed down the singers may have gone, but what replaced them?
Fulljames took the second default setting of a contemporary opera director, after the 1950s…to set the piece in the era it was written. Not too silly a suggestion trying to take away any medievalism left in the work and make it look more polished. The set resembling a gentlemens club covered in wood panelling and complete with four small balconies on the sides for the onstage band to play from. The lady of the lake becomes an object of posh scientific fascination as Edinburgh’s high society (the chorus) dressed in tails and top hats peruse her in a glass case accompanied by cases containing a model boat and another one with the regalia of Scotland. And then the naffest thing happens since the invention of time travelling productions…Walter Scott and Rossini show up on stage and remain on for the duration.
Repurposing the parts of Albina as Rossini and Serano as Walter Scott did not propel much the story it just seemed to have been his way to demonstrate he really had a solid concept behind the show. The main irritation from having Rosini and Scott on stage was their use as decorative additions in the extremities of the stage pictures adding very little interest and mainly spending the evening opening the panelling centre stage to reveal the revolving staircase that stood in for Elena’s house. And later on, the king’s palace. It is never made clear how the scientific specimen of La Donna gets reanimated, was this some secret knowledge society that had cryogenically preserved her, only to wake her up or were we just seeing a miracle making our leading lady mobile and singing? If you want to propose a thesis about the work’s very nature better work out the transitions in a smoother fashion.
Having a performer of Joyce DiDonato’s calibre treated like the famous singing fish must be immensely frustrating for such a physical actress. Thankfully when she comes out of the dreaded case she inhabited the role with such depth of feeling and ownership it was simply ravishing. The second victim of this production was Daniela Barcellona who was costumed in the frumpiest travesti way possible…ill fitting costume, ugly make up, terrible wig. If we need to be convinced she is a man there are simpler more elegant ways to achieve it. Thankfully a truly spectacular singer like her sang through this crap to deliver round tone, killer chest register and staggering volume alongside her measured acting.
Colin Lee was turned into a ridiculous comic book character complete with silly wig and costumed for a provincial production of Norma. All of his warriors were equally ridiculously costumed to drive home the obvious distinction between the townies and the highlanders, it was simplistic as it was crude. Flórez clearly must be good at saying no to the wig department as he was wearing his own hair and looked all the better for it. Mind you he was not spared a comically oversized crown that wouldn’t look out of place as a stripper’s prop and of course the final appearance as the king with acres of imitated ermine and bright tartan making him look like a cushion ready to match the curtains of the palace. His singing was unfailingly elegant but somehow he was outshone by most of his co-stars, notably Colin Lee who was much louder and much more attractively voiced on the night.
The one moment in the first Act I lost total faith in the direction (aside from the inexplicable reanimation of the cased heroine) was the dreadful rape scene which was a largely pointless addition and made no sense in 2013 where we do not need to see sexual violence portrayed as entertainment especially when the story does not need such diversions. It felt gratuitous and the deafening silence in the auditorium signified that I was not the only one to be appalled by this thoughtless addition. Fulljames deserves the scorn he receives on this aspect as it was utterly indefensible.
The chorus delivered some top class singing with very impressive volume and well drilled choreography. A show like this makes a big asset of the chorus and creates the only ebb and flow in a rather tension-free Rosinian romp. So credit to them and the chorus master for adding excitement and fabulous support to the soloists. The orchestra put in some juicy playing despite the very stop/start conducting for my liking. Mariotti must have ironed out a lot of problems that were reported from earlier in the run but somehow he doesn’t seem to grasp the ideal of a sinuous bel canto line for the singers and the orchestra.
If you read my ramblings from time to time you will know by now how much I enjoy Joyce DiDonato’s singing, She may not have the most colourful, most enchanting instrument on the planet but her deployment of her gift is so generous and exciting it is impossible not to be won over. The way she floated Rossini’s high lying phrases all night with such robust support was the stuff of legends.
Her command of the stage was magisterial and the final 20 minutes possibly amongst the best live singing I have heard in my life so far. From when she utters Tanti Affeti in the most delicious hushed pianissimo to the final felicità she gave an unrivaled lesson on elegant use of legato for expressive means, sheer glamour and utter triumph at the top of the cabaletta. A more exuberant expression of on stage happiness is surely difficult to come by.
This opera may not be even in my top 20 operas but a stunning performance of such virtuosity elevates it to an evening never to be forgotten. Yes everyone, I am as smitten with Joyce as I have ever been and cannot wait to see her repeat this magic on the last show on the 11th of June. The performance of the 27th was streamed live in cinemas so expect it in your Christmas stocking for 2014 in Blu-ray and DVD…it will be worth the wait. An additional joy was that Janet Baker was in the audience and congratulated Joyce after the curtain fell.
Some tweets from the evening