Sunday, March 15, 2015

La Donna del Lago: Not My Favorite Opera

All of the Live in HD presentations from the Metropolitan Opera in New York at local cinemas offer major entertainment experiences, but the truth is that some operas are better than others, and La Donna del Lago (Lady of the Lake) by Gioacchino Rossini is not my favorite.

This is the kind of opera that people wanted in the early 19th century, when it was written. It is basically a collection of good songs—not thrilling songs, but serviceable—loosely connected by an underdeveloped plot and perfunctory music. Even though the libretto (script) was inspired by a poem by Sir Walter Scott that was popular at the time, the lyrics are so prosy that I was frequently forced to groan, as one does at a bad pun. For most operas at the time, the libretto's main purpose was to provide excuses for songs that would show off the talents of popular singers. Forget about poetic lyrics, thematic significance, dramatic coherence, and symbolic significance. Fulfilling its purpose, no more and no less, La Donna del Lago delivers a big bundle of good songs.

And the Metropolitan Opera delivered an amazingly talented cast to belt them out.

Not surprisingly opera stars love this type of work. An opera that is written mainly to show off voices is called bel canto, or beautiful singing, and the type of singing they do is called coloratura, or colorful. In coloratura singing, the written music is like a framework for the performance, and the singer has a lot of leeway to add musical figures, like trills and warbles and runs down the scale and other flashy stuff. This is Show Off City, and the singers milk every note.

For me, the great revelation was the Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Mezzo-sopranos sing best at the low end of the soprano range. This means that men's roles are sometimes written for their voices. I really don't know the history or reasoning for using women's voices for men's roles, and it is very hard to take when the character is involved in a romance with another female singer. Ms. Barcellona is very well suited to this type of role because she is tall and bulky, and quite good at conveying the postures and attitudes of a highland warrior. And her singing is commanding. She is alone on stage for two or three arias, and she easily holds the stage on her own. In fact, her coloratura singing was so subtle that the emotions she expressed dominated the music, quite a good trick.

Daniela Barcellona, mezzo-soprano, plays a pants role in La Donna del Lago.
Here shown with soprano Joyce DiDonato.
Internet grab.
Ms. Barcellona was interviewed during the intermission. Even though she makes a good man, she does not seem butch; she doesn't seem to have any alternative sexual orientation. She seems like a regular woman, a little shy, but she can do it because she is a singing actress of great power. I'd like to see her sing a woman's role, but her large stature and her large voice tend to limit her range. She'd be great as a goddess or a queen. But she is so good at these so-called pants or trouser roles that she'll probably be kept busy doing that.

Daniela Barcellona, off stage.
All these images are grabbed from the internet.
Another singer I liked a lot was John Osborn, a tenor. His character was secondary and unsympathetic, but his singing was subtle in some passages, and I think he could fill out a more important role quite nicely.

The starring tenor role was played by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. Mr. Flórez's voice has a tinny ring in my ear, but I think that's a personal taste. I can't deny that he whipped up brilliant coloratura effusions. His acting seemed a little over-impassioned at first, but as the demands on his character increased he became more convincing and believable. It all seemed so easy to him, I thought he could be carrying on a chess game at the same time. As a bonus, he is as handsome as any movie star.

Juan Diego Flórez, tenor, singing lead role in La Donna del Lago.
Finally, we come to the undisputed star of the show, the wondrous Joyce DiDonato, another mezzo-soprano. It's unusual to have two mezzo-sopranos fall in love in an opera, but the duets joining these two voices, one slightly lighter than the other, is like the singing of angels.

Here's a significant back story. Joyce—she acts and talks like a regular Kansas girl off stage—has been singing the final aria of the opera as a solo piece in concert for several years. It is a glorious hymn to peace that could easily stand alone, and provides the perfect showcase for vocal fireworks. She developed the ambition to show audiences the context for this aria and has been working to revive this old-fashioned work. When she delivers the concluding aria, you understand why. Tripping along with dazzling flourishes, her voice reaches fantastic heights, both musically and emotionally. Clearly she pours all her real-life longing for peace on earth into her singing, and all of her talent as well.

Joyce DiDonato, singing the finale, "Tanti affetti"
To get back to my grumbling, the staging seemed stupid to me. In two or three important and delicate love duets, the female section of the numerous chorus pretended to busy themselves setting out a feast. It was distracting, very. During one choral number, several women standing in the foreground were threatened by violence that appeared to have no relation to the script. The director, Paul Curran, seemed to be creating a back story in pantomime. It was distracting and irrelevant to the singing. Also, the chorus was too dominant. The Metropolitan Opera loves its huge chorus and shoe-horns it into every production, no matter how the singers crowd the stage, or whether their presence is really called for, especially in such quantity. Admittedly they are good, but forty men singing full voice sounds more like a military exercise than an emotional expression.

But, so what? In this opera, you get a bundle of good songs, a handful of spectacular performers, and the incomparable Joyce DiDonato. That's all that matters.