Let Joyce reign! Let us reJoyce! I’ll stop now but you get the idea. Joyce DiDinato was radiant and triumphant as Elena in last night’s premiere of Rossini’s La Donna Del Largo. The music might as well have been written for her. She was perfection, and part of perfection is grace– the ability as in Fred Astaire’s dancing to make us believe that it’s all as natural as breathing. And thank you, Met opera for pairing her again with Juan Diego Florez, who sang King James. Last year the two of them were fantastic together in La Cenerentola though illness prevented him form many of the performances.
Daniela Bacellona the mezzo in the trouser role of Malcolm also gave a strong performance and was especially good in her duet with DiDinato, and John Osborn singing Rodrigo was powerful and charismatic.
The orchestra was ably conducted by Michele Mariotti.
But was it all wonderful? Not exactly.
While we could not have asked for a better cast, the set and staging were awful. This production by Scottish director, Paul Curran was first staged a couple of years ago outdoors in Santa Fe. I can’t even imagine how it must have looked with the New Mexico hills standing in for 16th century Scotland in the background. What we got at the Met was a screen with changing clouds and an occasional sunset. That’s right folks, a giant screensaver!
I know the Met’s been trying to cut back on production costs, but this was absurd.
In front of the screen, I couldn’t make out much because the lighting was so dim. It was dreary, even when the music suggested romance. The large choral ensemble wore drab costumes and moved around clumsily. Even the singers often seemed at a lose when it came time to exit the stage.
Making matters worse, there were burning crosses in one scene, which while dramatic might not mean the same thing in Scotland as they do here. Another scene featured poles with heads on them. Visually, it might have been interesting, but this was where King James sings about his great but hopeless love for Elena. Was the setting meant to be ironic? A commentary on the reality of war as opposed to the myth of it? If it was, it didn’t go nearly far enough and the singers didn’t seem to be in on it.
The opera was first performed in 1819, and according to my program, disappeared from performance by the end of the 19th century. Last night was it’s first outing at the Met. I could see how it might be problematic for modern audiences – not musically, but in terms of the libretto. It’s a simple enough story, about love and duty based on Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake. Elena meets Uberto, who is actually King James in disguise. He falls in love with her. She’s in love with Malcolm, but is betrothed to Rodrigo. Both Malcolm, Rodrigo and her father are involved in an uprising against the King. While the songs and duets are very emotionally meaty, the libretto is not especially complex. Characters sing about their feelings, but for something that takes place in the middle of an uprising there’s little actual action on stage Compare it to Rossini’s Il Barbeiere di Siviglia and it seems dramatically primitive. Where is the intrigue? The theater? It’s mostly singers alone or accompanied turning to the audience and singing. Given the rise of verismo that was to come, it’s understandable that La Donna faded away.
However, there have been other recent productions of other even earlier operas that have managed to rethink them – not by changing them musically, but by being playful and daring. David McVicker’s production of Giulio Cesare comes to mind as one example.
If you are going to take something out of mothballs, and bring in these world class performers who can do it justice, why make it a museum piece on the cheap?
Still, would I recommend you go? Yes, mostly because who knows if and when DiDinato will do it again, and she is not to be missed. It works because of the singers and the music. Maybe you should just close your eyes and listen.
(Enjoy this review? The best way to thank me would be to read some of the reviews for this book and then to download an e-copy. I won’t tell anyone!)