Rossini’s La Donna del Lago is based on the Walter Scott poem, itself a deliberately romantic view of Scottish history, simplified until not much is left but the rivalry for the heroine’s hand by her three suitors and a completely unexplained war between the king of Scotland and the Clan Alpine. Dramatically it’s thin indeed but it’s Rossini so there is crazy virtuosic music and it’s very hard to cast. One needs two mezzos; one a mistress of Rossinian coloratura, the other more dramatic, and two tenors; both of which can do the crazy high stuff. The supporting roles aren’t easy either. Realistically only a major house could cast this adequately.
The Metropolitan Opera did it in 2015 and the DVD release of the HD broadcast is a very good example of what the Met, and the HD broadcasts, do well and what they do not. It’s got top drawer casting; DiDonato, Barcellona, Florez and Osborne, which leads to some really spectacular singing but it’s also got a production that, despite pretensions, never quite makes it out of the 1950s and where the more effective bits are badly undermined by dodgy acting and worse video camera work.
The production is by Paul Curran and while he claims that the piece is “not really about Scotland at all” and references Game of Thrones, it looks like every Italian opera librettist’s idea of medieval Scotland with a few bits of earlier extraneous Celticry thrown in. “Druids” make an appearance. There’s cross burning too and what appears to be a walking wood appears in the second act. Apparently this is essential when one is trying to overthrow a Scottish king.
Then there’s Joyce DiDonato’s Elena who looks and acts like the title character in a very respectful CBC production of Anne of Green Gables. But at least she acts as, to be fair, does Daniella Barcellona as Malcolm. In fact she’s probably the pick of the cast in the acting department and is quite convincing in her kilted pants role. The men though just offer up a collection of stock operatic “acting” gestures and grimaces. It’s probably best summarized by saying that Juan DiegoFlorez, playing Juan Diego Florez as usual, is the best of them. John Osborn as Rodrigo di Dhu and Orren Gradus as Duglas d’Angus never really get beyond eye rolling and meaningfully gripping sword hilts. To be entirely fair to Curran it looks like he tried pretty hard to create interesting stage pictures with the chorus and with various landscape/skyscape projections but with little help from his “actors” and with Gary Halvorson in charge of the video department, as far as the DVD goes he might as well not have bothered. Most of the chorus scenes are filmed, often from odd angles, in such a way that one just sees a mob of (inevitably) hairy Scotsmen making hairy Scotsmen gestures.
It’s a shame it’s not more interesting dramatically because it is extremely well sung. DiDonato is pretty much ideal in every way as Elena and I’m not sure where one could find two better Rossini tenors than Florez and Osborn. Barcellona sings as well as she acts and everybody else is perfectly fine. Michele Mariotti’s conducting is well paced and the orchestral textures are clear. There’s some particularly nice work from the horns and the harpist. If it were a concert performance one would be happy indeed.
Technically the disks (it’s generously spread across two disks) are fine. The picture is good and both Dolby surround and PCM stereo sound tracks are about ad good as DVD gets. There is also a Blu-ray version. The booklet has a synopsis and director’s notes. The usual scripted and rehearsed anodyne interval interviews are included as extras. There are English, French, Italian, German and Spanish subtitles.
All in all, this release exemplifies everything that drives me nuts about the Met HD series. It feels like a fantastic cast rather wasted in a production that has some merit, albeit the director seems to have lost his edge in the vastness of the Met, but all completely undermined by horrible filming. Of course, not everyone feels that way and if the Met HD “product” is your thing you will likely like this one a lot. Also, there’s no real competition for this work on video. The only other recording available is an early 1990s La Scala effort.