Review – La Donna del Lago (Covent Garden, Monday 27 May 2013)
Elena – Joyce DiDonato
Uberto – Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm – Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo – Colin Lee
Douglas – Simon Orfila
Albina – Justina Gringyte
Serano – Robin Leggate
Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Dick Bird
Costume Designs – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Choreographer – Arthur Pita
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor – Michele Mariotti
There is no doubt that the Royal Opera House has a hit on its hands. But I do think it would have been just as much of a success if it had been performed in concert and the production itself had been shelved.
I read somewhere that this was a brand new production as the original production was not considered strong enough. Did it have fried mars bars being dispensed before battle or something? Or something else suitably stereotypical of an Englishman’s interpretation of what Scotland is like north of the Border?
But first, the singing.
It was first rate. Mostly. It was definitely built around its two main singers – Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez.
Without a doubt Ms DiDonato is the leading mezzo soprano performing today. She invests so much energy, enthusiasm, musicianship and credibility into every appearance that at times the intensity can almost be too much but not quite. She wraps herself into character completely.
Her Elena was everything it should be – passionate, devoted, defiant. The music itself held no terrors for her as she sailed through the coloratura and spun out perfectly even legato lines. It was interesting to hear a snippet of her recent masterclass at the Linbury. In a short five-minute excerpt she all but defined the basis of her own performance ethos when coaching a young singer – how an entire role informs her approach to the music as the narrative of the opera develops.
She really needs to write a book.
But it wasn’t only in her arias that she excelled but in the ensembles she demonstrated an innate sensitivity with the other singers. The trio and quartet that close the First Act for example and her duet with Daniele Barcellona were simply brilliant.
But it has to be said Oh mattutini arbori and Fra il padre, e fra l’amante were worth the price of the tickets alone. DiDonato really can switch from the smoothest legato singing – always beautifully and tastefully embellished – and the most ferocious coloratura with pinpoint accuracy. And it seems with incredible ease.
As Malcolm, Daniele Barcellona was superb as well. Her dark, dusky voice was a perfect foil for DiDonato. She literally spat out her coloratura in her solo numbers in both acts but when required, melded her voice with her onstage partners.
Colin Lee was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a shame that Fulljames wrapped him in a character of such ungainly barbarity as his was an elegant, flexible and bright tenor voice, full of character and depth. And he was able to shade his voice most elegantly, with an acute sense of dynamic control. I understand in the past he has covered for Florez. I can understand why.
And on Juan Diego Flórez this may be unpopular but he was a disappointment. For the overwhelming majority of the time, he seemed to have one volume no matter what he was singing – loud. There is no doubt that he still has the technique and can hit all the notes but it seems to be at the price of finesse. Indeed, in the trio just after the start of the Second Act he seemed involved in a singing competition not only with Colin Lee but also with himself. And compared to DiDonato and Lee, his stand-and-deliver method of acting was decidedly wooden. A shame as I have heard him sing before and always been impressed by his performances which have been more nuanced and – well – musical.
But the audience was having none of it. Technique won out over a truly ensemble performance.
Simon Orfila’s Malcolm was suitably solid and special mention must go to the Scott of Robin Leggate. Justina Gringyte’s Albina was a little too harsh for me.
Michele Mariotti conducted a brisk but meticulous performance. The chorus has rarely sounded better and Mariotti pulled out the delicacy of Rossini’s orchestral writing from the orchestra who are on top form at the moment. And with all the tempos well judged, the music was given real space and opportunity to breathe.
Having seen John Fulljames’ La Clemenza di Tito I was interested to see what he would do with Rossini. His approach was an interesting one and on paper, and no doubt when the model was first presented for approval, showed promise.
However his Scottish Highlands lacked the finesse of his interpretation of Ancient Rome as corporate boardroom.
There are times when a traditional approach definitely works better. And this should have been one of those times.
The sets themselves not so subtly hinted at Scotland with their granite overtones and – in the second act – a hint of Highland trees. The stairwell cleverly suggested the sweeping staircase of a Scottish castle and the use of a painted screen to separate one world from another was a smart device.
The conceit however of bringing together the world of Rossini and Scott with a ‘real-time’ setting showed a director trying too hard. Reminiscent of A Night In the Museum without the slapstick, it led to a congested stage at times. For example the English soldiers’ chorus at the start had something of the Gilbert & Sullivan about it. Unintended I am sure.
However it was Fulljames’ general characterization that let the production down. Portraying the Highlanders as savages – complete with sexual assault and a general disdain of women – was simply ugly. It was clumsy and jarred dramatically. And it seems the idea of a hanging dead animal has migrated from the Coliseum to Covent Garden with the inevitable entrails and blood smearing oath sworn at the end of Act One.
And the ending – the stage sprayed in tartan with the onstage musicians clothed in what looked like dressing gowns – was similarly gauche.
Less Braveheart and more Bland-heart.
However the production couldn’t undermine the overall quality of the singing on stage.
I have another ticket. If Covent Garden can be persuaded to dispense with the staging and if Juan Diego Flórez can find his volume button then it will be a perfect evening.