Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gioacchino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago

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Earlier this year, the Metropolitan expanded its Rossini repertoire with the company premiere of La Donna del lago. The production will be broadcast on the radio and simulcast “Live in HD” on March 14, 2015. (Please see our post of February 27 for the fortunes of Rossini at the Met from its 1883 Il Barbiere di Siviglia, programmed in the very first season, to William Tell, forthcoming in 2016-17.)

La Donna del lago belongs to Rossini’s early and very productive Neapolitan period, 1814-1823, when the composer was engaged by the then premier Italian opera company, Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, as its music director. The work was completed in four months between June and October 1819. Rossini was then twenty-seven years old and already Italy’s most celebrated operatic composer. 
Just a few months earlier, the San Carlo had presented Rossini’s Ermione, based on Racine’s Phèdre, and three years before that, his Otello, based on Shakespeare, of course. In 1819, it was the turn of Walter Scott and of his long narrative poem published in 1810, The Lady of the Lake. Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto was the first to be adapted from Scotland’s wildly popular and very influential poet and novelist. It would not be the last. Most famously, Donizetti, Rossini’s bel canto contemporary, would be indebted to him for Lucia di Lammermoor.
The score designates La Donna del lago “melodramma,” thus aligning it with the theatrical genre that had come to define European Romanticism. The work’s musical values signal the composer’s determination to reset the conventions of the art form. At the start of Donna del lago, you will note this departure: the expected brilliant Rossini overture is replaced by a brief prelude, just sixteen measures long. (In fact, five of the composer’s Neapolitan operas have no overture.) Rossini chooses to thrust the listener into the very particular atmosphere of the opera whose initial choral scene evokes the sylvan lake setting of the Scottish highlands.

If the arias and duets show off the bravura of the performers, they also display a high degree of narrative purpose. Bravura and narrative purpose intersect emphatically in the Act II trio. Elena is adored by political enemies, both tenors. King James V of Scotland, going under the assumed name of Uberto, and his rival, the Highlander Rodrigo, face off with bellicose high C’s. This recording, made during a 1986 Paris concert, features three American singers who figured prominently in the Rossini revival of the late 20th century, soprano Lella Cuberli, and tenors Rockwell Blake and Chris Merritt.

Elena’s third suitor, the man whose love she reciprocates, is Malcolm, a “trouser role” sung by a contralto or mezzo-soprano. The aria, “Mura felici . . . o quante lagrime,” which demands exceptional agility and extraordinary range, was a favorite of Marilyn Horne, who interpolated it into the “Lesson Scene” of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Here, the Malcolm is the astonishing Lucia Valentini-Terrani; regrettably, she sang at the Met only four times.

The happy conclusion of La Donna del lago is Elena’s aria, “Tanti affetti.” Here is a preview of Joyce DiDonato’s rendition in the upcoming “Live in HD” simulcast; she deploys her full arsenal of embellishment to spectacular effect.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this preview and background; I think I am prepared for the Saturday HD, which I plan to see with others from my retirement home. So sorry that I cannot be in NY at the Met.


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