The monster of Loch Ness has yet to make it to the opera stage. So we’ll have to content ourselves with Loch Katrine, another lake in Scotland and the setting of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.”
The staging at the Palais Garnier, a coproduction with Covent Garden and La Scala, is the first in Paris since 1824, five years after the world premiere in Naples.
One reason for the neglect is the superhuman demands on two of the heroine’s suitors, roles written for tenors with an extremely high top register and capable of singing coloratura. (Malcolm, the third contender, is sung by a mezzo-soprano.)
Another reason may be the less-than-perfect libretto that is almost a travesty of its source, Walter Scott’s epic poem “The Lady of the Lake.”
It tells the story of Ellen (Elena in the opera), the daughter of the outlawed Lord Douglas, whom her father wants to marry the rebel leader Roderick (Rodrigo) Dhu. Yet her heart belongs to Malcolm, a young Highlander. She is also courted by James Fitz-James (Uberto), a mysterious huntsman whom she once rowed across the lake.
After various adventures, all ends well. Roderick is killed in a duel, and the huntsman turns out to be none other than King James V, who graciously unites Ellen with the man she loves.
It can’t hold a candle to Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” another romantic opera inspired by Scott. Much of Rossini’s music, though always agreeable on the ear, sounds as if it was written on autopilot.
The two exceptions are Malcolm’s brilliant cavatina in Act I and “Tanti affetti in tal momento,” Elena’s joyous outburst in the finale. With its many ensembles and choruses, “La Donna del Lago” clearly anticipates Rossini’s last stage work “Guillaume Tell,” another opera set in the mountains.
Absurdly, director Lluis Pasqual and set designer Ezio Frigerio play down the bucolic element. The stage is dominated by Stirling Castle, the residence of the kings of Scotland, which is supposed to appear only in the finale. At times, the set opens up for a glimpse of landscape.
The lake is nowhere to be seen. Nor is there any kilt in sight: The hunters, clansmen and shepherds appear impeccably dressed in tails, like singers in an oratorio.
The acting is conventional: Swords are drawn, men and women fall to their knees or spread their arms in despair. You may argue that it doesn’t matter how Rossini’s silly cloak-and-sword saga is staged; what counts is the singing. This much is certain: The two stars deliver the goods.
Joyce DiDonato is an ebullient Elena, tossing off the fireworks of her rondo finale with breathtaking ease. Juan Diego Florez’s Uberto confirms his reputation as today’s leading expert in this kind of vocal mountaineering.
Colin Lee as his rival Rodrigo is also capable of astonishing top notes, yet his pitch control leaves room for improvement. Daniela Barcellona does a creditable job in the trouser role of Malcolm. Simon Orfila is a powerful, though rough, Douglas.
While Roberto Abbado, the conductor, emphasizes the lyrical side of the score, he is often too slow.
“La Donna del Lago” is in repertory through July 10. The production is sponsored by Colas SA, a unit of Bouygues SA. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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