La donna del lago - Royal Opera House, 17 May 2013 (first night)
The Royal Opera House has pulled together the most perfect cast imaginable for this new production. They more than lived up to expectations, with line after line of the most thrillingly spectacular Rossini singing I've ever heard. Even a production that rivals the recent Nabucco for sheer ineptness couldn't dim their brilliance.
Juan Diego Flórez gave us, as usual, the sort of perfectly even and secure singing that makes his fiendish coloratura and pinging top Cs seem almost thrown away. Like the equally stunning Joyce DiDonato, the titular donna, he didn't establish character clearly, but this is a fault that lies with the director. The robust, plummy mezzo of Daniela Barcellona as Joyce's paramour Malcom is well-known to continental audiences but a first for Covent Garden's, who rewarded her with a huge ovation for her faultless performance. Braveheartedly outfitted in traditional tartan, she made an eerily convincing man.
The biggest surprise was Michael Spyres, who stood in for an indisposed Colin Lee as as Joyce's unwelcome fiance Rodrigo, a role he was due to assume later in the run in any case. This is one of the toughest parts in all of operadom, encompassing a range from low F to top D. Spyres has a natural advantage with the low notes, having initially trained as a baritone. His notes were not quite as secure as Juan Diego's (whose are?), but every single one was clean. A rich and full lower register compensated for thinness at the very top. His sweetness of tone is matched by a naturally affable stage presence (rather like Calleja's), which made him a curiously sympathetic villain. He's due back at Covent Garden the season after next in the title role of Idomeneo, but you can catch him earlier at ENO in next season's Benvenuto Cellini, a role he seems perfect for at this stage in his career.
Michele Mariotti led the ROH orchestra in adequate if unsparkling support. The intonation of the onstage band (especially piccolo) was the only real disappointment.
Scenery applauders will find plenty to ovate in Dick Bird's stylish sets and the exquisite heather-paletted Harris Tweed costumes designed by Yannis Thavoris. But everything else about the production is a mess.
John Fulljames has framed Rossini's tale in a 19th century library where, presumably, Sir Walter Scott is reading his poem, on which the opera is based. The minor character of Serano (Robin Leggate) is got up as Scott, and helps release Joyce from the vitrine which encases her in the opening scene. He pops up later to hand over props. The concept appears to be a reading brought to life - sort of Night at the Museum meets Brigadoon.
Why Rossini (Justina Gringyte as another minor character, Albina) should be present too is anybody's guess. Both hang around almost throughout. Unlike Herheim's Manon Lescaut, which introduces the composer as a character in order to explore the whole notion of creativity, here there seems to be no intellectual basis for the intrusion, other than to point out that the story is a story and not a history - which is surely obvious.
The greater problem is the lack of direction of individual characters. The underlying ideas may be sound, but stock gestures abound. We never find out who these people are. The chorus are stuck there long after they've finished singing, obstructing the view and diffusing the focus. Anyone unfamilar with the opera is going to wonder just wtf is going on.
What's more, Fulljames introduces a mass rape scene not even remotely indicated in text or music. Was there really no other way to highlight the brutality of the Scottish Highlanders? Rossini, who created some of the most feisty and independent heroines in the history of opera, would have deplored reducing women to mere punching-bags. To top it off, the Lady of the Lake herself compliments King Uberto on his gentilezza (kindness) straight after he's shoved her around. No wonder Juan Diego looked nonplussed. I've encountered far more graphic scenes from Calixto Bieito and other directors in my European travels, but I can't recall anything quite as gratuitous as this. Animal lovers should also be warned about an unconvincing but nevertheless gory slaughtering scene.
It is clear that Covent Garden needed an alternative to "Lluis Pasqual’s laughable staging", which they had previously intended to borrow from the Paris Opera, but is this picturesque nonsense really any better?
The production is a must-see for the casting alone. But if you manage to snag a restricted-view ticket, count yourself lucky.