07 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘La Donna del Lago’

Come to me, bel canto to me:
Joyce in Brigadoo — I mean, Santa Fe.
(That’s the real sky in the background.)
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera richly deserves its reputation for presenting rarely heard works in productions that are worth traveling to see: last season’s offerings included Rossini’s Maometto II and Szymanowski’s King Roger, neither of which had I seen onstage. This season features new productions of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, and a world premiere, Theodore Morrison’s Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde.

But it’s no longer entirely accurate to call La Donna del Lago a “rarity,” since recent seasons have seen it in Paris, London, Milan, Geneva, and now Santa Fe, with a Met premiere (in the Santa Fe production) on the horizon. At the center of all of these revivals has been one singer, Joyce DiDonato, and at this point we’d all be better off if we just faced facts, renamed the opera once and for all, and called it a repertory staple: La DiDonato del Lago.

Kill or be kilt:
The opera concerns fierce political divisions
about which audiences need know almost nothing.

Based on a novel by Walter Scott, the libretto doesn’t exactly inspire an audience to go back and read the book; it tells of an attempt to force a girl into marriage, against a backdrop of roiling political passions; it does at times recall Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, also based on a Scott novel. Elena, the heroine of La Donna del Lago, winds up with the man of her choice, and she doesn’t need a mad scene. That said, her final aria “Tanti affetti” (So Many Emotions), is a tour-de-force of bel canto vocalism. (I’d call it a showstopper, but it comes at the end of the show anyway.)

Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to see clips of Joyce singing this aria, and her interpretation continues to grow. With conductor Stephen Lord, she seems to have hit on something quite extraordinary in Rossini: it’s as if she searches for the right word, putting a break between “tanti” and “affetti”: “There are so many … emotions.” At first I thought she’d simply worn herself out, which would have been understandable. But no, she was up to something exceptional and expressive. As usual.

In any case there’s no substitute for witnessing a live performance, and I was dazzled by Joyce’s technique — right up there in front of me — as she delivered a profusion of trills and runs without ever losing sight of all those emotions. Elena is another of the roles that Rossini wrote for the mezzo who would become his wife, Isabella Colbran, but as I listen to Joyce, I have to think Rossini somehow knew what was coming, two centuries later, and wrote this stuff for her. When she sings his music, the notes may be popping out faster than the chocolates on Lucy and Ethel’s assembly line, yet each is a confection in itself, with its own flavor, texture, and color.

Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm.

Kevin Knight’s costume designs capture the spirit and variety of Auld Scotland, without being too pedantic about it, and Joyce looks lovely. (That’s something not all designers have been kind enough to permit her in stagings of this opera.) Knight’s set design impressed me less favorably. It moves well to change scenes — Elena’s cottage and King James’ throne room achieve just the right atmosphere through relatively simple means — but its fallback position is a sort of blasted heath better suited to Samuel Beckett than to bel canto, and with the ensemble forever charging on and off, it seemed crowded. Presumably the design will be expanded for the Met’s larger stage, but the Met will have to replace the Santa Fe backdrop — the open air and the dramatic skies that make it quite easy to imagine there’s a lake somewhere nearby, even when we’re really in the desert.

The libretto sets up a love quadrangle, as Elena is beloved of King James (or Giacomo, disguised as Uberto, sung by a tenor), the Highland chieftain Rodrigo (another tenor), and the fellow she loves, Malcolm (a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano). Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato looks nothing like a boy onstage — and I mean that in the nicest possible way — but she could be dressed as a giant bunny rabbit in this role and still win me over. The voice isn’t as deep nor the technique as eccentric as those of Ewa Podles´, yet there’s a familiar smoky quality coupled with spectacular agility. She hasn’t sung much in the United States, but given the audience response in Santa Fe, that could change very soon.

Larry and Joycee, together again.

Lawrence Brownlee takes the role of Giacomo/Uberto, and while it’s a good fit for his impassioned coloratura, his tone last night sometimes took on a harder edge than I’m used to hearing from him. (Ordinarily he sounds like melted butter, piping hot.) He’s got a wonderful rapport with Joyce, which makes me wish they’d have more opportunities to collaborate. In this case, their teamwork really helps to raise the dramatic stakes: you get the sense that these two might actually make a pretty good couple, were it not for the fact that a) she’s already in love with somebody else; and b) he’s her father’s enemy.

As the man her father prefers, San Antonio’s René Barbera sings with a bright, clean sound that slices like a scalpel through ensembles. And Wayne Tigges, as Elena’s father, Duglas (I’m not making this up, you know), offers a surprisingly sympathetic presence along with gusty, characterful singing.

Curran’s staging is full of good ideas and seemingly dedicated to making this fraught tale identifiable to those of us who are not caught up in Scottish tribal wars. I also admired the way that Giacomo’s ring, the most important object in the libretto, finds its symbolic counterpart in a little bouquet of heather that reminds Elena of Malcolm. Other ideas could use further work, notably the arrival of wise men (or wizards, or whatever they are) who prepare the Highlanders for battle. Bare-chested in blue bathrobes, they writhe about while painting the warriors blue — and eliciting a few chuckles in the audience, even while some of Rossini’s most serenely mystical music fills our ears.

Am I blue? The Act I finale:
Elena has Pict her friends wisely.
(That’s Dan Kempson standing at far right.)

Indeed, the score, composed in 1819, contains quite a lot of complex material, ahead of its time in many ways. The beautiful choral number that opens the opera, as the Scots greet the dawn, sets a standard for later Italian masters to rival, and the clear correlations to character and mood point the way to Verdi — even while refuting Wagner’s assertion that Rossini didn’t concern himself with such matters. I’ve begun to listen to this opera only since Joyce started to sing it, but I’m looking forward to the rewards of further study.

It’s a treat, too, to see members of my Fort Worth Opera community here in Santa Fe. The company’s Apprentice Singers program counts Dan Kempson and both Jonathan and David Blalock among its number, and in this opera, David gets a nice solo turn as Giacomo’s servant — or, as he puts it, “stealing the show from Joyce DiDonato.” Can’t blame a kid for trying.

With an added performance at the end of the season, La Donna del Lago continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 19. Click here for information and tickets.

No comments: