Twenty-thirteen is not a Rossini anniversary year (true birthday celebrations are technically rare, since he was born on February 29, in 1792) but it certainly feels like one. The year embraces an unprecedented three productions of his daunting masterpiece, Guillaume Tell, all in Europe, while his serious Italian works continue to make headway. With singers at hand who make child’s play of scales and roulades, La donna del lago (1819), long on the fringe of bel canto repertory, has turned up afresh at the Royal Opera House and now at the Santa Fe Opera, which tackles it for the first time.
Where the staging in London almost literally treated it as a museum piece by enclosing characters in display cases and allowing Rossini and Sir Walter Scott cameo appearances, Paul Curran’s appealing production plays it straight while stressing Scottish local colour, most notably when Highlanders smear blue war paint on themselves before battling the forces of James V. Kevin Knight’s scenery builds on Santa Fe’s natural beauty, as rugged terrain on stage merges with an honest-to-goodness sunset.
Central to the plot is a familiar love-versus-duty operatic dilemma, yet one that proves only mildly wrenching, since Elena’s own choice of a husband, Malcolm, seems largely fungible with Rodrigo, the guy her father favours for strategic reasons, even though Malcolm has the advantage of two big arias. Elena herself spends most of her time with a third suitor, Uberto, who is James V in disguise and the most interesting of the three aspirants. Still, in Joyce DiDonato’s brilliant and intense portrayal, Elena takes her predicament seriously as it brings her almost to the brink of madness. The elusive incandescence of the legendary “lady of the lake” comes into evidence belatedly in DiDonato’s captivating account of the aria-finale “Tanti affetti”, a classic, all-is-right-in-the-world operatic moment.
As James, Lawrence Brownlee sings with unfailing technique and beauty of tone, reaching a dramatic highpoint as he unsuccessfully presses his amorous case for Elena in their Act 2 duet. René Barbera, in fine form as Rodrigo, matches Brownlee note-for-note in the stunning trio in which they exchange high Cs. Marianna Pizzolato brings a handsome mezzo-soprano to Malcolm but is unflatteringly costumed in this trouser or, more accurately, kilt role. The conductor Stephen Lord tolerated some untidy playing in presiding over a well-paced account of the score.