Rossini’s operas for Naples, where he was music director of the Royal theatres from 1815 to 1821 represent an important strand in the development of his opera. There he had a large and well-funded establishment so that he was able to challenge his performers musically, scenically and dramatically. In a way, each of his Neapolitan operas pushes boundaries or experiments with form, as Rossini moves rather old-fashioned opera seria towards something more modern.
La donna del lago (premiered 1819) is important in many ways. Musically one of the finest operas of Rossini’s Neapolitan period, it is the first major use of the work of Sir Walter Scott in the opera house, the first opera to be in any way Romantic, and in his use of the off-stage band and multiple choral groups in the Act One finale, Rossini was breaking new ground. It is an opera that needs and deserves to be heard.
But Oh, the plot. I have seen the opera twice at Covent Garden. One production was highly traditional, with Marilyn Horne in doublet and hose, the other more interventionist (directed by John Fulljames in 2013). Neither really did the work justice. It is not an opera that plays itself; the drama requires context. Yet we no longer want to see bad depictions of Scottish Highlanders disporting themselves on stage. And few operatic budgets nowadays run to the multiple spectacular scenes that the libretto calls for.
So, it was with great interest that we caught the Buxton International Festival’s new production of La donna del lago at Buxton Opera House on 15th July 2022, directed by Jacopo Spirei, with Giulio Cilona conducting (sharing conducting duties with Adrian Kelly, artistic director of the festival) the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Máire Flavin was Elena, Nico Darmanin was Uberto, John Irvin was Rodrigo, Catherine Carby was Malcom, and David Ireland was Duglas. Designs were by Madeleine Boyd.
It has to be said that Buxton fielded a very impressive cast. Rossini wrote for some of the finest singers of the day, and whilst coloratura tenors are more common nowadays, they still are not ten a penny. This was a production that could be enjoyed musically, with plenty of dramatic meat too.
Spirei’s approach was a fascinating hybrid between the tradition and the interventionist, placing the story at one remove. There were no Highlanders as such, Boyd’s costumes simply placed the action in a non-specific medieval period, and it was clear from the grimy, rowdy men of the chorus that Duglas’ home was very much in the back of beyond. But this traditional action took place in the context of a set that was actually an archaeological dig. The Highlanders first appeared out of the set and enacted the story before the archaeologists. One character, Albina (Fiona Finsbury) remained in modern dress throughout, a witness to the story.
For Act Two, the archaeological remains were now in a museum, an exhibit complete with figures of the original inhabitants, who came to life when John Irvin’s Rodrigo called for the Clans. Boundaries were blurred for the King’s court, which took place in the modern museum and the costumes for King and entourage had a strong element of neo-punk and bondage to them – a nicely playful element to the production.
It worked. The slight element of distance helped, as did the playfulness in the costuming, while Spirei’s treatment of Máire Flavin’s Elenda made clear the role women were subjected to in the early historical period. Of the men in Elena’s life, Duglas (David Ireland, her father), Malcom (Catherine Carby, her beloved), Rodrigo (John Irvin, her betrothed) and Uberto (Nico Darmanin, the King in disguise with whom she flirts), only Malcom treats her in any way well. Neither John Irvin’s Rodrigo nor Nico Darmanin’s Uberto came out of the production well, the first a psychopath, the second highly manipulative.
Máire Flavin probably has a higher, lighter voice than Isabella Colbran, for whom Rossini wrote the role of Elena. Yet Flavin made the role own, producing streams of poised roulades that were expressive in their own right, and crowning this with a delightful account of ‘Tanti affetti’), Elena’s final rondo. Flavin also created a believable and appealing character, her demure, submissive outward appearance hiding a stronger, steelier interior.
The opera is defined by Elena’s interactions with the men in her life. Demure and obedient, all downcast eyes with John Irvin’s scary Rodrigo, she and Nico Darmanin flirted their way through the opera, whilst with Catherine Carby’s Malcom, she seemed more of an equal. But the opera keeps Malcom, as a character, at a distance.
Catherine Carby filled this gap with virtuosity and emotion-laden music. Malcom has two big moments, his bravura entrance aria and then the more poignant one in Act Two when things seem lost. Carby can swagger with the best of them, her Act One entrance was both virtuosic and full of warmth. And in Act Two she had the knack of pulling the heartstrings whilst singing astonishing roulades.
Nico Darmanin sang Uberto, the role written for Giovanni David which means that it is crazily high. Darmanin attacked the music with fearlessness and drama, producing tone that was robust and virile, yet expressive too. He leveraged the idea of Uberto as an outsider in this society. Yet in the finale, he brought out the King’s manipulative nature, playing with Flavin’s Elena in a way that verged on the nasty.
Having two tenors competing for a single soprano meant that Rossini gave us a terrific scene of duelling tenors. In fact, this was a trio, with Flavin’s Elena, akin to a similar scene in his Otello. Irvin and Darmanin were well matched in the ‘anything you can do I can do’ stakes and the three singers made this extended trio (constructed in traditional ‘double aria’ format) into a think of wonder, virtuosity, bravura and musical drama.
Irvin’s was very much a scene-stealing performance – he enacted Rodrigo’s psychopathic nastiness with glee. Tall and somewhat cadaverous, wearing a butcher’s apron, Irvin was scary and combined this with terrific singing. Rodrigo is an odd role, he arrives late and finishes early (almost as if Andrea Nozzari, the first Rodrigo, told Rossini he wanted to leave early to visit his mistress!). Irvin made it work, his entrance both bravura and vivid. I have rarely heard this style of music sung with such relish.
David Ireland’s Duglas came a poor fifth in the music stakes; important dramatically, he had few major musical moments. Yet, Ireland was a strong presence, commanding yet sung with warm tones. The smaller roles were well taken. Fiona Finsbury was a discreet yet important presence as Albina whilst two members of the chorus, Robert Lewis and William Searle, did sterling duty as Serano and Bertram.
Musically, this opera is a stretch for a small company. There are multiple choral groups in the Act One finale, and Rossini uses an extensive stage band (12 instruments I think). Buxton fielded its performers with complete aplomb, the chorus of 21 made up of chorus members and young artists, the stage band supplied by members of the young instrumentalists programme (students from the Royal Northern College of Music mentored by members of the Northern Chamber Orchestra).
The results were rousing and convincing. The chorus, men in particular, clearly relished their different personae – the rowdy, grimy Highlanders and the BDSM flesh displaying courtiers. And they sounded good too, no hint at all of stretched resources.
Rossini’s use of off-stage instruments such as the horns during the opening scene, make this opera rather magical orchestrally. Rossini does indeed indulge in some tone painting, and Cilona and the orchestra were on strong form. Cilona kept things on a tight rein: speeds were swift, but it all felt as if it flowed naturally and there were no longueurs, while the instrumentalists were all on top form.
This was an impressive achievement for a relatively small company, and the production combined fine musicality with an interesting sense of intelligently thinking through the dramatic and scenic problems presented by the piece. What this shows is that La donna del lago is still very worthwhile, and we had a terrific evening in the theatre.
Rossini: La donna del lago
Elena – Máire Flavin, Malcom – Catherine Carby, Rodrigo – John Irvin, Uberto – Nico Darmanin, Duglas – David Ireland, Albina – Fiona Finsbury, Serano – Robert Lewis, Bertram – William Searle; Director – Jacopo Spirei, Conductor – Giulio Cilona, Designs – Madeleine Boyd, Northern Chamber Orchestra
Buxton International Festival at Buxton Opera House; Friday 15th July 2022.
ABOVE: La donna del lago (c) Genevieve Girling