Joyce DiDonato as Elena and Juan Diego Flórez as Giacomo V in La donna del lago

The Metropolitan Opera is now presenting La donna del lago, by Rossini. It has never done so before. That title, in English, is The Lady of the Lake. Sir Walter Scott wrote his narrative poem in 1810, and Rossini made an opera out of it within the decade.

It is one of his magnificent works. It has two famous arias, including the one that it ends with: “Tanti affetti.” There is no greater showpiece aria in bel canto. The other famous aria is “Mura felici,” slain by Marilyn Horne, among others.

Longtime readers are familiar with a theme of mine: The conductor is regularly the most important person in an opera performance. This may be obvious in a work such as Wagner’s Parsifal. But is it true in bel canto as well? Oh, yes. Won’t some Italian journeyman do, beating time while the singers onstage spin their lines? Oh, no.

The conductor makes a huge difference in bel canto. A good one can redeem the night when the singing is subpar. A poor one deflates the night, even if Callas and Stignani are onstage.

Friday night’s Donna del lago had splendid conducting from Michele Mariotti, whom we have met before. For instance, he conducted Bellini’s Puritani last season, while his wife, Olga Peretyatko, sang the soprano role onstage. In La donna del lago, Mariotti was taut, graceful, and smart. He has the style, a style hard for many to absorb.

The star tenor of the night was Juan Diego Flórez, the bel canto tenor of our day. He had the little bleat in his voice—the caprino—which is not to everyone’s taste. But he has bestridden the world with it. And, on this occasion, he was at his absolute best. He was confident, secure, and gleaming. And musical. And thoroughly Italianate. There was nothing for the listener to worry about. You could sit back in your seat and merely enjoy the Flórezness.

Also, he was believable as the Scottish king he was portraying, Giacomo (James), initially disguised as a fellow named Uberto. What do I mean by “believable”? I mean, primarily, that Flórez carried himself regally. He squared his shoulders, held his head erect, and sang.

No offense, but I would not have bet my life savings that Flórez could be convincingly kingly. I could have, should have, made that bet.

Given Flórez’s presence in the cast, you would not have envied the second tenor involved, John Osborn. He sang the role of Rodrigo, “chief of the Highlanders.” When he began, he gave us a very poor low C. But then there were high C’s—which were excellent. One was soft, and especially admirable (because so difficult to pull off). Throughout the opera, Osborn acquitted himself with honor, even nobly.

By the way, we have met him before, too. I wrote about him from Salzburg two summers ago. He was Pollione opposite Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma in Bellini’s opera of that name (Norma, I mean). He shone on that night, singing with both beauty and strength.

If you wouldn’t have envied Osborn, because of Flórez, you really wouldn’t have envied Daniela Barcellona, given who the principal mezzo was. (More about her in due course.) Barcellona was the No. 2 mezzo, so to speak, singing Malcolm, a pants role (as the name tells you). In this production, Malcolm is a kilt role.

Yes, Barcellona was outfitted in a kilt, as well as a beard and mustache (if I saw correctly). She could almost have joined the circus. She was not a pretty sight, I’m afraid. But she was not there to be pretty: She was there to sing Malcolm.

To him falls one of those smash arias, “Mura felici,” and Barcellona did not do her best in it. She was underpowered and off pitch (sharp, mainly). But she was clearly intelligent. And why do I say she did not “do her best”? How do I know that? Because in the subsequent act—Act II—she was much stronger. A better singer, all the way around, justifying her hire.

Singing Duglas, father of our heroine, Elena, was Oren Gradus, a bass. He had a certain parental authority. What he did not have was sound—volume. That made his air of authority all the more important.

La donna del lago is virtually a clarinet concerto. There are more important singers than the clarinet in this piece, but not many—just a few. Jessica Phillips Rieske was our principal, and she handled her music with agility, lyricism, and flair.

The Met chorus is accustomed to being lauded, and rightly so. On Friday night, the women sang delicately and precisely. The men, singing separately, had a less laudable night. They did not meet their usual standard of crispness. But the chorus has set the bar in this house very high.

Of course, the Met orchestra has done the same. In La donna del lago, the orchestra in general was limpid, fleet, and other things that Rossini wants.

The production is in the hands of Paul Curran, a Scottish director (for a Scottish opera, or a “Scottish” one). I will pick on it for a bit. The Highland warriors do a kind of football huddle, which comes off as silly. (I’m talking about American football, not the other kind.) They beat their breasts, which, again, comes off as silly, in my view. There is Braveheart war paint—a bit silly.

At one point, men come in bearing scenery: trees. Birnam Wood on the move? That’s Scottish too, isn’t it?

I could mock on. There were hoots from the audience, and not desired hoots. That was painful. But I liked this production. I will first give it some negative praise, which is praise nonetheless.

The production does not try to alter, distort, or hijack the opera. It does not make itself front and center. Rather, it serves the opera. Frames the opera. Complements it. The director is not an egotist, spilling himself all over the stage, and Rossini’s work.

Moreover, I thought the sky was striking, and James’s throne room splendid.

I have not yet mentioned the star of the show, the mezzo singing Elena, Joyce DiDonato. Frankly, I am out of words. Also frankly, I’m sick of saying “I am out of words.” For the last ten years, I have written more about Joyce DiDonato than I have to my own mother. I first heard her in the negligible role of Stéphano, in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. I was floored. I have had no reason to get off the floor since.

At least twice already this season, I have reviewed DiDonato. She appeared in a concert performance of Handel’s opera Alcina. I had a lot to say about her here. She also gave a recital. For my review, go here.

I should not say nothing about her Elena, so I will say something—just one thing. I have heard her sing “Tanti affetti” several times. But I had never heard her sing it in the context of the opera. She acts the thing, too. It’s enough to sing it—but she actually acts it, and affectingly.

Holy mackerel.

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