Notes and Editorial Reviews
This recording should allow newcomers to enjoy this most melodic and romantic of Rossini’s opera seria.
La donna del lago is the twenty-ninth in the sequential list of Rossini’s operatic titles and the fourth of the nine opera seria Rossini wrote under his contract as musical director of the Royal Theatres of Naples. It was the first opera by a noted composer to be based on any of Walter Scott’s romantic works. Whilst nowadays the most famous is Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Scott’s popularity as a source of operatic libretti expanded rapidly after Rossini’s example. It was at the San Carlo theatre, Naples, with its professional orchestra and fine soloists, that the composer could let his musical invention find its fullest expression. He did not need to resort to the more static and traditional operatic conventions that still pertained elsewhere. In no other Naples opera seria does Rossini expand his musical invention more effectively than in act one of La donna del lago.
Rossini had returned to Naples in the beginning of June 1819 after the premiere of Adelaide de Borgogna (see review) in Rome and by early September he had completed the composition of La donna del lago. Circumstances blighted the premiere on 24 September when the opera had a lukewarm reception. It was considerably more successful at subsequent performances and remained in the San Carlo repertory for a further twelve years. The Act 2 rondo, Tanti affeti, roused Naples audiences when sung by Isabella Colbran, Rossini’s mistress and in 1822 his first wife. Within five years of its composition La donna del lago was heard all over Italy as well as in Dresden, Munich, Lisbon, Vienna, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Paris and London.
The vocal demands of Rossini’s opera seria for Naples have always been a challenge to later performances. He wrote to suit the superb company contracted by the renowned impresario Domenico Barbaja who had first tempted the composer to Naples. Alongside the vocally formidable Colbran, the roster included the tenors Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari, both notable for their ability with stratospheric coloratura singing. Rossini’s writing for the two tenors has since proved problematic in a period when voices of the type seemed to have dried up. By 1860 La donna del lago was forgotten until its revival in Florence in 1958. It was heard at the Camden Festival, London, in 1969 and at Houston in 1983 in a production that was also seen at Covent Garden. The emergence from North and South America in the late 1970s of voices who could tackle the tenor roles written for the Naples duo stimulated the Rossini revival by the Pesaro Festival who presented La donna del lago in 1981 and 1983 and followed with other opera seria written with the duo in mind. A live recording from the Pesaro performances featuring Katia Ricciarelli as Elena, Lucia Valentini Terrani as Malcolm and Samuel Ramey as Douglas was issued by CBS on its Masterworks Label (M2K 39311 nla). An audio recording from the 1992 sequence of La Scala performances conducted by Muti appeared from Philips (PH 438 211-2 nla). A DVD version of this Werner Herzog production is available from Opus Arte (see review). The work is scheduled for a shared production by leading European opera houses in 2011.
The story of La donna del lago is set in 15th century Scotland at a time of regular border warfare and insurgency. Elena lives near the shores of Loch Katrine with her father, Douglas, who has been exiled by the King. Although her father has promised her to the rebel chief Rodrigo di Dhu, she loves the young highlander Malcolm, a ‘trousers’ role. After rowing over Loch Katrine, Elena meets and offers shelter to Uberto who had become separated from his hunting party. Uberto is in fact the King against whom Douglas and Rodrigo are in conflict. The incognito Uberto falls in love with Elena and later gives her a ring promising that if ever in difficulty or danger it will secure the help of the King. After the defeat of the rebels and the death of Rodrigo Elena seeks out Uberto and discovers his true identity. The King keeps his promise, pardons Douglas and gives Malcolm Elena’s hand in marriage. The opera concludes with much rejoicing.
La donna del lago opens without an overture, one of the few of the composer’s operatic works to do so. Instead, Rossini seeks to conjure up the atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands in sixteen bars of orchestral introduction followed by a chorus of shepherds (CD 1 tr.1). This is followed by a particularly effective reflective aria for Elena Oh mattutini albori with distant horns (tr.2) that also serve as a melodic motif for her. In the Opera Rara recording, Elena is sung by a soprano as it is on the CBS issue. In the present case we hear the experienced Rossinian mezzo Sonia Ganassi. Vitally, her more soprano-like timbre is fine for the contrast with her lover Malcolm, sung by the low mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, in their duet (CD 1 trs. 16-17) and elsewhere. I greatly admired Ganassi as a dramatic Sinaïde in Moïse et Pharaon (see review). In the role of Elena she encompasses the tessitura without difficulty whilst bringing her full range of tone to characterise the heroine’s many moods (CD 1 tr. 2 and CD 2 trs. 22-23) and particularly in her duets with Uberto (CD 1 trs 3-4 and CD 2 trs. 9-11) as well as in the ensembles. Her Tanti affetti is particularly affecting (CD 2 tr. 22). I did feel Ganassi was outgrowing the eponymous Cenerentola (see review) a fact wholly confirmed by hearing the younger, and lower-toned, Marianna Pizzolato live in the role in her British debut with Welsh National Opera (see review). Like Ganassi, Pizzolato sings with smooth, even, well articulated tone and excellent legato across her considerable vocal range. She exhibits no gear-change to the lowest notes. There are no rasping chest tones in her very musical and well-characterised interpretation (CD 1 trs 11-13 and CD 2 trs. 14-15). This duo reflects excellent casting and represents a significant strength in this performance.
As I have indicated, the casting of the tenors taking the roles written for the Naples duo of David and Nozzari is always likely to be a challenge in this and other Rossini opera seria written specifically with them in mind. In the Opera Rara recording the two roles were sung with musicality and appropriate vocal dexterity as well as allure. But nobody knows the Rossini vocal scene better than scholar and conductor Alberto Zedda, the guiding light of this venture that was recorded at Bad Wildbad, but separately from the annual summer Festival there. That he has succeeded in the tenor casting here to the extent he has is a considerable achievement even if it does not quite match the vocal mellifluousness of the Opera Rara duo. Both tenors encompass the vocal demands. I admired Russian tenor Maxim Miranov in the DVD of Dario Fo’s hyperactive staging of L’Italiana in Algeri at Pesaro in 2006. I noted how he kept good vocal form as he was required to involve himself in physical activity and whilst not being distracted from the peripheral goings-on (see review). Here he has no such distractions and is able to show off his light, highly flexible vocal skills to maximum effect (CD 1 trs. 3-10 and CD 2 trs. 8-13). His slightly dry tone lacks the vocal allure of Kenneth Tarver for Opera Rara, let alone the likes of Juan Diego Florez. However the high Cs ping out with similar security and accuracy. This is also true of the German Ferdinand von Bothmer as Rodrigo, who is required to go down to a baritonal low. He achieves this feat as well as bringing strength and appropriate vigour and characterisation to his role. If he doesn’t quite match Gregory Kunde on the Opera Rara issue in the evenness across his considerable range, that is merely to compare the excellent with the very good (CD 1 trs 18-21 and CD 2 trs. 12-13).
As Elena’s father, Wojtek Gierlach sings strongly if without much distinction (CD 1 tr. 15). In the minor tenor role of Serano the Belgian Stefan Cifolelli sings well with a good Italianate squilla that differentiates him nicely from his tenor counterparts. The soprano tones of the Russian Olga Peretyatko as Albina is likewise well sung with purity and vocal strength in the ensembles. The highest compliment I can pay the Prague Chamber Choir is that they sound Italian and sing their many contributions with vigour. It is vigour, allied with a feel for the genre of the music, brought to the proceedings by Zedda, that is perhaps an even greater recommendation for this issue than the undoubted strength of the soloists.
The booklet has an introductory essay by the conductor, a full track-listing and separate track-related synopsis, all in English and German. Also to be welcomed are the artist profiles given in English only. There is applause after individual items and scene ends and this becomes more enthusiastic as the opera proceeds. The Opera Rara issue, from live performances at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2006, eliminates the applause, whilst benefiting from the frisson of a live performance. Perhaps Naxos could investigate this procedure for their recordings at Bad Wildbad. That is as may be. The applause did not destroy my considerable enjoyment of this excellent performance that adds another Rossini opera to Naxos’s burgeoning catalogue of the composer’s works.
-- Robert J Farr, MusicWeb International