Opera in due atti. Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Six months after Ermione , Rossini had yet another premiere, this one in a much more romantic vein. La donna del Lago plays into the earliest phase of the Italian operatic obsession with all things Scottish as its plot is derived from an 1810 poem by Sir Walter Scott. Extremely popular up until an 1860 performance in Trieste, the opera went unperformed for nearly a century before a revival in Florence in 1958. Since then it has had around 25 productions in the United States, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom, most of these since 1981. Today, La donna is considered to be a turning point between 18th century opera seria and the romantic opera of the mid-19th century. This review is based on a 1992 La Scala performance conducted by Riccardo Muti with June Anderson, Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt, and Martine Dupuy.
SETTING: Scotland, first half of the sixteenth century. Elena (soprano), the daughter of Douglas (bass, and the former tutor of the King) is a very popular girl, as she has two tenors and a contralto after her! These are Uberto (tenor) who is actually King James V of Scotland, Rodrigo (tenor) a rebel chief to whom she is engaged, and Malcolm (contralto) another rebel chief whom she actually loves. Douglas, Rodrigo, and Malcolm are all raising an army to overthrow King James because apparently he really isn’t any good at the whole being king thing. Eventually James (still disguised as Uberto) gives Elena a ring with which she can get herself out of trouble and she uses it to free her father and lover after the rebellion fails.
NOTE: I am being conservative here with the number of scenes (ACT 1: 3, ACT 2: 4) although the opera is sometimes divided into as many as 17 separate tableaux (ACT 1: 10, ACT 2: 7). Considering that there are only 13 musical numbers, this can get to be a little extreme.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (97 minutes)
Scene 1: The shores of Lake Katrine.
1: Del dì la messaggiera già The opening scene *** consists of a ninety-second prelude which immediately flows into a chorus of mixed-gendered shepherds, very agitated and yet stately, a brilliant opening.
5: Oh mattutini albori Elena shows up in a boat on the lake singing of her love for Malcolm **.
13: Scendi nel piccol legno Elena offers to take Uberto to her island in her boat on the lake (it uses the same theme as her earlier aria) **.
16: Uberto! Ah! dove t’ascondi? The royal entourage arrives, revealing the true identity of Uberto/James in a sparkling chorus *** (notice the rather energetic trumpet) which ends the scene.
Scene 2: The home of Douglas, on the island.
25, 28: D’Inibaca donzella/Sei già sposa? After nearly five minutes of plot-forwarding recitative for Elena and Uberto, a chorus of women (and mezzo confidant Albina) arrive with a rather magnificent tune *** coming up in the violins. Elena and Uberto have a long discussion about how she is engaged to the rebel leader Rodrigo, but she loves another ***. Who might this man be? Is it Uberto? thinks James. No, not Uberto, says Elena. Bummer, James. A masterful scene and a brilliant fourteen minutes nevertheless.
39, 42: Mura felici/Elena! O tu che chiamo Malcolm arrives in a furious recitative*, leading swiftly to a grand contralto aria (slow cavatina **, faster cabaletta ***). Serano, a servant of Douglas, arrives and the two discuss the whole rebellion plot. Douglas arrives with Elena.
53: Taci, lo voglio A Beethovenesque-aria for Douglas **, very strong, dark orchestral effects (notice the counter-bass), as he tells Elena to buck up and marry Rodrigo.
59: Vivere io non potrò A brief (less than four minutes) duettino ** for Elena and Malcolm as they pledge themselves to each other. Very gentle, very mild.
Scene 3: A gorge in the mountains.
64, 66: Qual rapido torrente/Eccomi a voi A standard military chorus from the rebels * brings us to Rodrigo who embarks on an eight-minute long aria *** which includes some of the lowest notes in the tenor rep (all the way down to a low-a!).
77: Ma dov’è colei Elena arrives for the forced wedding to a rehash of the military chorus from the top of the scene, only reworked now as a choral march *.
79: Quanto a quest’alma amante Rodrigo addresses Elena to an oddly familiar tune **.
81: Di opposti affetti un vortice This turns into a trio for Elena, Douglas, and Rodrigo ***.
85: Crudele sospetto/Crudele sospetto Malcolm arrives to offer himself and his men to the rebel cause and it turns into a quartet ***, Rodrigo gives his hand to Malcolm, but Douglas already realizes the true nature of the relationship between Malcolm and Elena. Rodrigo does as well, but is more interested in keeping the peace, and introduces Elena as his bride. A grand ensemble ensues ***. Serano arrives warning of a royal attack, the rebel forces unite
92: Già un raggio forier Suddenly the harp ascends and the bards sing an interesting number with Albina ***. Then Rodrigo gives the call to arms, thunder, lightening, and they rush off to the battle. Fade out.
ACT 2: (62 minutes)
Scene 1: A forest near a cave entrance.
2: Oh fiamma soave The entr’acte is placid and calming after all the rush and militancy of the previous act. The tune immediately flows into an aria for Uberto/James *** as he thinks longingly about Elena (specifically his desire to save her from the ensuing battles).
12: Alla ragion deh rieda The revelation duet **: Elena is not in love with Uberto. He doesn’t really care and gives her a ring from the king which he says will save her from any danger.
20, 26: Misere mie pupille! Rodrigo appears and confronts Elena and Uberto **. His men appear, ready to attack Uberto, who is saved only by the intervention of Elena. A rousing conclusion to the scene with a slightly familiar tune as Rodrigo decides to duel to the death with Uberto ***.
Scene 2: The interior of the cave.
34: Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! Albina encounters Malcolm in the cave and reports news of Elena, who has gone to the king to plead for the life of her father. Meanwhile, Serano reports that Douglas has himself gone to the king to plead for the rebels. Thinking all is lost, Malcolm seeks death in a magnificent contralto aria *** (what else?) Suddenly a chorus of rebels appears with the news that Rodrigo has been killed and their cause is totally lost. Malcolm becomes determined to save Elena even if it costs him his life.
Scene 3: Before the royal palace.
45: Aurora! ah sorgerai avversa After a brief scene in which Douglas is imprisoned by the King and Elena gains entry to the palace (thanks to the ring) determined to save her father, Malcolm, and Rodrigo (of whose death she has no knowledge), she hears Uberto singing of his love for her **. She encounters Uberto, begging him for audience with the King.
Scene 4: The throne room.
48: Imponga il Re The big reveal ***: a chorus of courtiers tips off Elena that she has been spurning the advances of the King, she begs for her father and Malcolm. James frees Douglas, but at first menaces Malcolm.
54: Tanti affetti in tal momento! The rondo-finale for Elena ** as she rejoices over freeing her father and lover and peace is restored to Scotland.
The score of La donna del Lago is gorgeous, truly one of the most advanced and modern sounding in all Rossini. The orchestration is ahead of its time, the vocal display magnificent, and it is probably the most melodically rich (and Teutonically dark) of any thing Rossini would ever composer, and yet there is one glaring problem: the plot itself is rather static and (in spite of the energetic nature of the music) very, very slow (especially in act one, if anything in act two the plot moves perhaps too quickly to its conclusion). The first forty minutes of the opera consists of essentially a duet for Elena and King James punctuated with (admittedly amazing) choral numbers. It takes this long just to introduce three (3) of the eight (8) characters in the opera? Then, in the next twenty-five minutes, we are introduced to four (4) more characters including three of the five most important. Although so much of the best music goes to the chorus, it is used very conservatively, with the male chorus disappearing completely for over forty minutes of act one. The best of the rest consists of the arias, and three of the ensembles: the Elena-James duet in act one, the act one finale, and the act two trio. The second act finale does seem a bit rushed, and it is a rather odd ending for the soprano to end up going back to her origins rather than becoming queen. Or perhaps this is a good thing? Overall, an alpha.