Although the New York Times
regarded the straight-forward plot as purely conventional we experienced the adaptation of Sir
Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake as somewhat unusual opera seria largely because the ending was happy, the king did not get the girl, and the only death occurred off-stage. Briefly, the
plot consists of three men who each love Elena (the title character): Rodrigo, who has been
promised her hand in marriage by her father; Uberto, the king of Scotland in disguise (a surprise
to us all at the very end); and Malcolm, a handsome young man with few credentials to
recommend him to her father other than the deep love he and Elena share.
La Donna has grown in popularity lately due to the diligence of musicologist Philip Gossett, who
worked with Marilyn Horne in reviving Semiramide. La Donna also has a pants role—Elena’s
young lover Malcolm is cast as a mezzo-soprano—and like Semiramide, it is the
soprano/mezzo-soprano love duets that offer the most musically sensual moments.
Laura Vlasak Nolen as Malcolm stirred what was otherwise a somewhat sleepy matinee audience
on Saturday, March 24, rousing them to cheers with her first-act aria, an electric out-pouring of
love for the absent Elena. Nolen’s duets with Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elena were also
cause for much applause.
Pendatchanska’s voice and training were well-suited to the bel canto role of Elena, but she was at
times hard to hear, possibly because the orchestra was overpowering her extremely florid and
delicate sound. The two high tenors, characteristic of Rossini but a rare find nowadays, were
also impressive. Robert MacPherson as Rodrigo was a very commanding presence, if somewhat
inconsistent; we particularly were impressed with his energy in his first aria. The role of Uberto
was ably filled by tenor Barry Banks who has a close performing relationship with
Pendatchanska. Elena’s controlling father Douglas was performed by Daniel Mobbs.
The orchestra also performed admirably. The musicians handled the challenges of Rossini well,
keeping the scales clean and the touch light. The woodwinds are to be especially commended for
their solos in the overture. Too, offstage horns heralding the onset of war created some of the
greatest spatial effects of the opera.
The set and costumes were designed by David Zinn, who characteristically employed lots of
brick in his set design. The overall feeling was somewhat claustrophobic, especially in the scene
inside Elena’s home where the wings moved inward and the towering walls reached the fly. Still,
you must admire the man who tries to portray a lake with a wall of bricks. The uncomfortable
effect was heightened by the presence of numerous stiff-looking chairs that were toted about the
stage by stern women dressed in black. One other moment was particularly unfortunate in large
part because of the set and staging: although the first duet of the opera was well-sung and
dramatically acted, the mood was ruined by laughter elicited from the audience when Elena and
her suitor Uberto exited the stage in a boat that was ostensibly carrying them across the lake.
Overall, City Opera’s production of La Donna had an emotional impact that was greater then the
sum of its parts. While the audience seemed somewhat disinterested, we found the singers strong
and Rossini’s music beautiful. A unique work in the canon, we are truly appreciative of the effort
given on all fronts to put on this gem.
image_description=The Lady of the Lake by Howard Chandler Christy (1910)
product_title=Above: The Lady of the Lake by Howard Chandler Christy (1910)