Review: Rossini Royalty – DiDonato, Brownlee, Pizzolato and Barbera in Curran’s Staging of “Donna Del Lago” – Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2013

In an extraordinary revival of a once popular early 19th century work, the Santa Fe Opera presented its new production of Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago (The Lady of the Lake)” to a sold out audience.

The opera is based on Walter Scott’s famous poem The Lady of the Lake (not the same character as is associated with the King Arthur legends), about Ellen,  the daughter of an anti-monarchical chieftain, living a refuge life on an island of Loch Katrine in the Scottish Trossachs. This is the rebellious area that produced Robert the Bruce, William Wallace (Braveheart) and Rob Roy MacGregor.

Scott’s poem was one of the catalytic works that inspired the Romantic era of literature, art and music, based on idealized medieval settings. Rossini’s opera caught this spirit early on, bypassing the familiar fare of classical history and mythology, for the rugged settings and violent passions of the Scottish highlands.

Rossini done Right

In casting the four principal roles, four international artists, each schooled in the complex style of authentic Rossini singing, were enlisted.

The dominant vocal style of the  century Italian opera stage during  the 1810s and 1820s, both Rossini’s serious and comic operas are characterized by vocal performances abounding in melismatic singing – multiple musical notes for each syllable of text sung. This style is noted for rapid runs and arpeggios and a floridity of sound, not present even in the works of his younger contemporaries, Bellini and Donizetti.

Only a few international artists are recognized for their proficiency in singing Rossini’s works as intended – what just a few decades earlier seemed like a lost art.

Joyce DiDonato’s Elena

This rarefied circle of Rossini specialists includes Joyce DiDonato, in the role of Elena (Ellen).

[Below: Elena, the Lady of the Lake (Joyce DiDonato) stands near her home on a lake in the Scottish highlands; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The role of Elena is a tour de force. Elena arguably dominates the opera, from the very first aria di sortita to the extended series of arias for her at opera’s end. DiDonato has embraced and mastered the role.

In the first rank of contemporary, she is poised to be forever considered with the legendary group of famous Elenas of the past two centuries.

This role is further confirmation of DiDonato’s command of the Italian showpiece roles of the early 19th century, including those of Bellini [Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012] and Donizetti [Joyce DiDonato is Vocally and Dramatically Convincing in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” – Houston Grand Opera, April 27, 2012].

DiDonato’s range encompasses Bellini’s Romeo, usually considered a mezzo-soprano role as well as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Rossini’s Elena Douglas, most often sung by soprano voices. She has also excelled in the comic roles, such as Rossini’s Rosina [Florez and DiDonato Dominate Los Angeles Opera’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” – December 6, 2009], Mozart’s Cherubino [Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010] and – more sentimentally – Richard Strauss’ Octavian [S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007.]

Lawrence Brownlee’s James V

Possessing a voice of the proper weight and agility to sing Rossini’s taxing tenor parts, Lawrence Brownlee now is unquestionably one of the leading tenors in the leggiero category.

A vigorous and intelligent actor with astonishing vocal dexterity, Brownlee proved as adept in a Rossini opera seria as his justified fame as a Rossini opera buffa tenor. [For reports of his Lindoro, see: Daniela Barcellona Triumphs in Font’s Whimsical Production of “L’Italiana in Algeri” – Houston Grand Opera, November 3, 2012 and Genaux, Brownlee and Vinco Romp in Rossini’s “L’Italiana”: Garnier Opera House, Paris – October 8, 2010.]

[Below: King James V, disguised as Ubaldo (Lawrence Brownlee, front center), wonders if he is in the home of an enemy; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


(The idea of James V of Scotland disguising himself to interact with his subjects surreptitiously, like the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” or the Viceroy of Peru in Offenbach’s “La Perichole”, does seem to have an historical basis.)

 Marianna Pizzolato’s Malcolm

Like her colleagues DiDonato, Brownlee and René Barbera, Marianna Pizzolato is an accomplished Rossini comic actor [see Ponnelle ’s Historic “Cenerentola” at the Garnier – Opera National de Paris, December 1, 2012], who is equally comfortable with the vocal pyrotechnics of Rossini’s serious dramatic works.

Rossini observed the tradition of casting young lovers with two female voices, so that mezzo-soprano Pizzolato is in a warrior’s tartans as Malcolm. Her solo arias, such as Elena, oh tu che chiamo were bravura displays and her duets with DiDonato’s Elena were affecting.

[Below: Marianna Pizzolato as Malcolm; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


René Barbera’s Rodrigo

Rossini had two world famous tenors, Giovanni David (James V) and Andrea Nozzari (Rodrigo), as the sworn enemies.

Like his “Rossini royalty” colleagues, Barbera is also expert in the range of Rossini tenor roles [for a report of his Prince Ramiro, see Love All Around for Cinderella, Prince Charming in Joan Font’s Zany Staging of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” – Los Angeles Opera, March 23, 2013],

One can detect nearly two centuries later evidence in James V’s music of David’s range high in the tenor tessitura and in Rodrigo’s music evidence of Nozzari’s somewhat more baritonal sound.  Barbera and Brownlee memorably shared the stage in an extraordinary vocal displays between two “dueling” tenors.

[Below: Highland chief Rodrigo de Rhu (René Barbera, center) brandishing sword; leads his men into battle; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wayne Tigges’ Duglas

Elena’s father Duglas was played by the excellent basso Wayne Tigges. In Tigges’ well-sung aria Taci, lo voglio in e basti one can hear evidence of the strong influence of Mozart’s operatic works on Rossini.

Tigges has amassed an impressive resume in recent years with roles at the Santa Fe Opera [see Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010], San Francisco Opera [see Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011] and Los Angeles Opera [see Achim Freyer’s Fascinating “Rheingold” Begins L. A. “Ring” – March 11, 2009].

[Below: Duglas d’Angus (Wayne Tigges, right) is determined that Rodrigo di Dhu (René Barbera, left) will wed his daughter Elena (Joyce DiDonato, center, in blue), despite her preference for Malcolm (Marianna Pizzolato, second from right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Paul Curran’s Direction and Kevin Knight’s Sets and Costumes

The Santa Fe Opera has invested impressive resources in this new production. Importantly, it brought together the team of stage director Paul Curran and set and costume designer Kevin Knight, whose previous collaborations at Santa Fe Opera and elsewhere have produced spectacular evenings at the opera.

[As examples of the Curran-Knight collaborations, see: Countdown to the Britten Centennial: Conductor James Conlon, Director Paul Curran in Reverential Mounting of Britten’s “Albert Herring” – Los Angeles Opera, February 25, 2012 and  David Lomeli, Ana Maria Martinez Shine in Deeply Cast “La Boheme” – Santa Fe Opera, July 2, 2011 and Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008 and  “Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008.]

Curran’s directorial projects are noted for the clarity and purposiveness of all stage movement, Curran eliciting from his singers naturalness in their acting. Staging this opera, whose several characters all have elaborate backstories that are only partially revealed in the onstage drama, Curran did an admirable job in keeping the onstage interactions between the characters clear and understandable to the audience.

[Below: Scottish director Paul Curran; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


Knight’s sets evoked the natural beauty of the Scottish highlands, and his costumes were brilliantly conceived, notably in the warrior scenes and the lavish final scene of King James V’s court.

[Below: Gathered behind Elena (Joyce DiDonato, left center in blue dress), the highland warriors have adorned their chests with warpaint; edited image, based on a Ken HOward photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]



I recommend this production and cast without reservation, and suggest that lovers of early Italian opera consider traveling long distances to see it.