Bravi Bellissimi: Thrills and trills at SFO’s Scottish play

From The Santa Fe Reporter, July 16 2013

“Matching La donna in florid ease, Lawrence Brownlee as Uberto sails through the stratospheric tessitura like a bird on wing, his fluid ornamentation never in question.”

I nearly had to see a barber last Sunday morning to plaster down my perpendicular locks after a hair-raising premiere of Rossini’s La donna del lago at the Santa Fe Opera the night before. Purists insist that opera is about three things only:  voices, voices and more voices. The current production qualifies. I’ve been a pretty regular customer at the SFO since ’57 and can say that in terms of vocal heroism in general and spectacular bel canto singing in particular, this show has no rival. Period.

Rossini’s no stranger to the SFO, the buffa repertory especially. But La donna completes a SFO trifecta of the composer’s serious operas written for Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo between 1819 and 1820, all rarely performed, all crazily difficult, and all filled with tradition-busting avant-garde-isms. Many-tenored Ermione appeared in 2000, Maometto II created a sensation last summer, and now it’s La donna’s turn to startle the coiffure.

The opera’s source, Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake,” captured the Romantic imagination, inspiring the celtic-kilty Highland Revival and sparking a much-caricatured Edinburgh visit by George IV in voluminous kilt and pink tights. Elena, the opera’s heroine, has the misfortune to be courted by three suitors:  1) the king, Giacomo V, tenor, in disguise as Uberto, Cavaliere di Snowdon (!); 2) Rodrigo di Dhu, tenor, chieftain of the Highland clans rebelling against the king; and 3) Malcom Groene, mezzo, a lesser rebel and Elena’s true-love.

Complicating matters further, Elena’s rebellion-friendly father, Duglas d’Angus, insists that she marry the uncouth but charismatic Rodrigo. As is routine among romantic libretti, the heroine must choose between love and duty in a series of taxing, tuneful arias and ensembles. These days the mezzo Joyce DiDonato, a 1995 apprentice at SFO, simply owns the role of Elena. From recent appearances in Geneva, Paris, La Scala, Covent Garden and now at the Crosby Theatre, she’s La prima donna del lago assoluta del mondo.  

Probably the major consideration for making bel canto singing sound bellissimo isn’t just hitting the notes or negotiating the ferocious fioratura. It has to sound oh-so-natural, embodying the art of concealing art. DiDonato’s smoothly legato entrance aria, the barcarolle “Oh mattutini albori!” seems as easy as birdsong.  That perilous final aria, “Tanti affetti,” flows trippingly from the throat, with DiDonato tossing off effortless trills and filigree passagework and flowery embellishment as if they were nature’s woodnotes wild.

Matching La donna in florid ease, Lawrence Brownlee as Uberto sails through the stratospheric tessitura like a bird on wing, his fluid ornamentation never in question. René Barbera sings an authoritative Rodrigo, another high-flying tenor-busting role, with aplomb. That ridiculously difficult Elena/Uberto/Rodrigo trio, “Qual pena,” leaves us breathless with admiration. In the trouser role of Malcom, Marianna Pizzolato exudes supreme confidence throughout her impeccable phrasing and clean coloratura.

The magnificent chorus under the direction of Susanne Sheston plays a heroic role, morphing from their opening shepherd/shepherdess mode to become king’s huntsmen and lady-friends of Elena, then to embody ferocious Highlands clansmen, and finally to personify the graceful courtiers of Giacomo V. What skill and versatility! What speedy costume changes!

Conductor Stephen Lord’s account of the score, a model of balance and bright intensity, remains at the service of the singers throughout. Kudos to the busy stage band, to the suave woodwind choir and to the restrained, accurate brass section. 

Paul Curran has called La donna “a bugger of a piece to do,” which is putting it mildly. Take for example the Act One finale: clansmen galore, damsels in danger, principals emoting front and center, off-stage band, and three distinct choruses including blue-painted bards writhing in holy ecstasy. A few bizarre indulgences aside, he pulls it off.  Kevin Knight’s functional set and costumes and Duane Schuler’s lighting prove merely serviceable until the gorgeously sung grand finale, a surprising and delightsome coup de théâtre better entitled La Clemenza di Giacomo.

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