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Serious Rossini

Santa Fe
Santa Fe Opera
07/13/2013 -  & July 17, 26, August 1, 6*, 14, 2013
Gioacchino Rossini: La donna del lago
Joyce DiDonato (Elena), Lawrence Brownlee (Uberto/Giacomo). Lacy Sauter (Albina), Joshua Dennis (Serano), Marianna Pizzolato (Malcolm), Wayne Tigges (Douglas), René Barbera (Rodrigo), David Blalock (Bertram)
The Santa Fe Opera Chorus, Susanne Sheston (chorus master), The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Stephen Lord (conductor)
Paul Curran (director), Kevin Knight (set and costume designer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer)

L. Brownlee (© Ken Howard)

Beethoven famously - and presciently - praised Rossini's comedies as his lasting contribution to opera, but in recent decades the Italian composer's more serious works have received greater consideration. La donna del lago is one of the more recent, with productions in the past few years in both London, and Paris (the latter shared with Milan's La Scala). Paul Curran's undemanding traditional approach, which brings the work to Santa Fe for the first time, is shared with the Metropolitan Opera.

This opera is not, as the title might suggest, an Arthurian story of power and fate, but rather a soapy romance that strains credulity even in the notoriously fanciful world of opera. The first of Sir Walter Scott's works to receive an operatic treatment, it presents a heroine, Elena, who is torn at by three suitors: her true love Malcolm, her politically expedient fiancé Rodrigo, and finally King James V (Giacomo) of Scotland, Rodrigo's enemy whom she happens to meet disguised under the name Uberto. They all love her, but in the end happiness brings her to the man of her choice. After three hours of wrestling with the dilemma and many cadenzas to express how difficult this resolution is, Rodrigo conveniently dies in battle. The King decides to reveal his identity and behave magnanimously, uniting Malcolm with Elena to live happily ever after.

Operas such as this one often represent a vehicle for a star singer, and Santa Fe had one on hand in Joyce DiDonato, the coloratura mezzo of our time. Lilting ascents and flawless technique brought florid power and grace to what is essentially a soprano role. Allusions to cut glass may be tiresome, but no amount of praise can overstate the raw talent and insight in her delivery. It is tenor Lawrence Brownlee's misfortune to have gained a reputation as the leggero tenor opera companies hire when they cannot book Juan Diego Flórez (who has sung Giacomo/Uberto and other roles of the same Fach around the world). The voice is a talented one all the same, though some of the ornamented runs sounded too jumpy and effortful.

Mezzo Marianna Pizzolato had a better night as Malcolm, a trouser role, though her costuming in baggy male clothes made for some awkward love scenes. Wayne Tigges added his fine baritone in the role of Elena's father Douglas, an enemy of the king, and René Barbera's tenorial brawn contributed some fitting pomp to his rebellious role as chief of the Highlanders.

Stephen Lord took few chances with the score. Slow tempos and competent playing did little to enliven the dramatic moments, though several of the ensembles and the martial strettas were well worth hearing.

Curran's production offered few surprises. A patch of Highland earth dominates Kevin Knight's set design and separates when necessary to allow for other representational sets to emerge for population by traditionally clad Scotsmen, including Highlander warriors with the traditional blue face paint. The only set that betrayed some imagination was Giacomo's gilded court, a superb setting for DiDonato to let loose with her rondo finale "Tanti affetti." Still, Santa Fe's unique stage allowed for the earth patch to blend appealingly with the natural background of mountains and sky visible in the long first act.

Paul du Quenoy



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