Rossini - La Donna del Lago

Friday June 18 2010

Conductor: Roberto Abbado. Production: Lluís Pasqual. Sets: Ezio Frigerio. Lighting: Vinicio Cheli. Costumes Franca Squarciapino. Giacomo V (Uberto di Snowdon): Juan Diego Florez. Duglas d’Angus: Simon Orfila. Rodrigo di Dhu: Colin Lee. Elena: Joyce DiDonato. Malcolm Groeme: Daniela Barcellona. Albina: Diana Axentii. Serano: Jason Bridges. Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

It's a brave (or foolhardy) house that schedules a killer work like La Donna del Lago. How to stage it these days is a trivial question beside that of how to cast it. The Paris Opera has put together about the best cast you could hope for (the next morning I listened to Pollini's recording; in the comparison, only Ramey came across as better) but even so, it was a case of "safety in numbers." The ensembles, from duets upwards, were less precarious than the solo arias because, plucky though everyone was, nobody was wholly at ease, wholly consistent throughout the range, (understandably: Rossini was pitiless in his demands!), nobody made the performance look normal and natural, rather than a stupendous feat - with one exception: Florez.

So now I know why he's famous. It isn't the size of his voice, which is quite small (hard to believe he sings at the Met; but as any Met regular will tell us, the acoustics there are simply the best in the world). It's his exceptional ability to sing these madly difficult heroic arias with every note nailed, with a consistency of timbre from bottom to top so absolute it might be boring were it not so amazing, and with engaging, still-youthful pugnacity and sincerity. And that sincerity is just as engaging in the "sentimental" numbers: not a hint of a sob.

Joyce DiDonato was, wrote a critic, "au sommet de ses possibilités vocales." She was very, very good, more footsure than Ricciarelli on that recording I mentioned. But to be perfectly honest, to me she is vocally and temperamentally better-suited to Händelian tragedy, in which she really convinces, than Rossinian artifice. My impression is that in Rossini she is not only at the summit but also at the absolute limit of her vocal powers and that there's nothing left to spare for sentiment or the projection of a strong personality. You're impressed but not thrilled.

Daniela Barcellona is more at home in Rossini. Hers is more the kind of voice we expect and, built like a house and striding vigorously around in her armour, sword in hand, like some giant, jolly, carnivorous dyke spoiling for the fun of a fight, she projects personality like it was about to go out of style. Colin Lee did what he could with Rodrigo, which, apart from loss of volume at the bottom, was impressive at the gut-busting top. It must be maddening to be pitched, in ensembles, against Florez making the same notes seem so effortless. Simon Orfila was loud and clear if not in any way subtle.

Subtlety was not evident from the pit, either. Roberto Abbado has apparently learnt nothing about Rossini from his uncle and the orchestra tub-thumped its way through the score from f to ff without a shred of delicacy. There were as many scrappy attacks in the pit as from the chorus, although the latter, once they got going, were sometimes splendid.

I'd been warned that this was a dusty, traditional production. It was in fact a typical 70s or 80s one. While the chorus wore evening dress - tails for the men, long dresses for the women, I mean - the protagonists were in highly stylised armour and fringed brocades, glittering with gold and silver. They brought to mind "pupi siciliani," those marionettes you see on souvenir stalls all over Sicily. The single set was a decaying renaissance theatre of the Teatro Olimpico kind, with eight engaged Corinthian columns (in fact reminiscent of the ones that hold up the pediment of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo; it did occur to me that Sicily might have been an underlying theme) on a sturdy basement now pock-marked by rising damp (sometimes the "lake" was the central arena, dimly-lit with dappled blue from above), meeting in a kind of "ducal box" in the centre, and two levels of balustraded gallery. The whole concave colonnade parted in the middle to reveal a mirrored wall, reflecting back the chandeliers and splendours of the Palais Garnier, a deliberately tattered painted flat of a "sublime" mountain landscape and lake, or a giant, diagonal breach in a pink brick wall of Imperial Roman dimensions. Sometimes props - a boat, some stones, a harp - rose comically through the floor. Once, there was a flat, painted oak tree.

"Pupi" in a theatre, the chorus in evening dress, and Elena singing her final aria on a podium, with a music stand (another prop that came though the floor) under the chandeliers... I guess the idea was to highlight the ritualised artifice of Rossini's opera seria, with the protagonists as marionettes and the chorus as audience, looking on. This is no way, of course, to help you engage with the characters; on the contrary, it naturally has a distancing effect and, as the singers struggle with the score while making conventional semaphore gestures (there was no other directing here as such) it risks making them look silly. But I'm not sure that in these works we can really ever get close to the drama - the music is distancing anyway.

I nearly forgot the ballets - easily done as they were totally irrelevant and altogether forgettable. The four dancers were booed resoundingly but, as booing opera ballets is a time-honoured tradition at Garnier, took it - like the soldier-extras at the Bastille on Wednesday - with great good humour.

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