tue 16/07/2024

La donna del lago, Buxton International Festival 2022 review - Rossini’s romanticism for today | reviews, news & interviews

La donna del lago, Buxton International Festival 2022 review - Rossini’s romanticism for today

La donna del lago, Buxton International Festival 2022 review - Rossini’s romanticism for today

A taut and tension-filled presentation with classy casting

Triumphant final display: Máire Flavin as Elena in Buxton International Festival’s production of Rossini’s 'La Donna del Lago'Donna del lago images by Genevieve Girling

Buxton International Festival’s opera scene is clearly back on track for 2022, and its most substantial production a taut and tension-filled presentation of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago.

Jacopo Spirei’s production, with design by Madeleine Boyd, has just one basic set: it changes from Act One to Act Two by removing two evocative visual elements (a hearth and a panel of generally rustic appearance) and replacing them with geometrical and electrically dazzling shapes, and it has a binary contrast of costumes – ragged rebel Highlanders and sophisticated, techno-style royal loyalists.

So, from the Romantic lake, woods and mountain fastnesses of the original, the story is re-interpreted as a clash of cultures: poor and powerless versus superior and entitled.

That’s a clever way of seeing Walter Scott’s story (in the poem, “The Lady of the Lake”) and bringing it into relationship with today’s world. The production does not shirk, either, from highlighting the position of Elena, the heroine, as a woman on her own against a lewd, male-dominated society, with not only a domineering father but also two would-be lovers whose high Cs (and beyond) in the score betray pure testosterone-fuelled competitiveness, in contrast to the true love she finds from the travesti role of Malcom, the mezzo of the cast (Catherine Carby pictured below with Máire Flavin). Catherine Carby and Máire Flavin in 'La donna del lago'The opera may be an early example of the clichés of Romanticism in its musical language (horn calls, tremolando strings, harp accompaniment for bardic utterances), but Spirei and Boyd’s approach brings its own resonances for today. And given that there was little prospect of representing a real loch on Buxton Opera House’s compact stage, the adjustment is well conceived. Elena’s invitation to “Scendi nel piccol legno”, accompanied by handing over a tiny model of a little boat instead of offering a seat in a real one, may have been a bit of a bump in narrative consistency, but the rest worked very well.

The story is of a time of rebellion against James V of Scotland, in which his former tutor Duglas is now caught up: Elena has been promised to rebel leader Rodrigo, but in the early scenes the noble James, in disguise as “Uberto”, meets and takes a fancy to her. Malcom joins the rebellion for love of Elena, and the chorus of Highlanders have much warlike zeal to express.

It all ends badly for them, however, and the story concludes with Elena desperately seeking to save both herself and her father, and James torn between mercy and justice. Typical opera libretto nonsense in many ways, but with its help Rossini gets some hugely dramatic moments out of the formulaic ingredients of opera seria, and a great virtue of this interpretation on opening night was the way it was driven tirelessly on by conductor Adrian Kelly, the BIF artistic director. (He shares the conducting with Giulio Cilona).Ensemble scene from La donna del lago at BuxtonThe casting for a piece that makes big demands on its principals, in mastery of coloratura technique, range and stamina, has to be classy, and that’s what Buxton has for its flagship opera this year. The two tenors are Nico Darmanin (“Uberto”/James V) and John Irvin (Rodrigo), both with ringing top notes and superb breath control, and Catherine Carby (Malcom) can match and even outdo them for sheer projection.

The opera makes Elena a winsome heroine from the start, with an opening to the duet “Le mie barbare vicende” that could be out of the first act of Barbieri or Cenerentola, and ends with a magnificent rondó finale, “Tanti affetti” that must be a triumphant display and bring the house down. For that Máire Flavin is the worthy choice, and no surprise either.

David Ireland contributes stirring stuff as Duglas, and Fiona Finsbury is excellent as Albina. Best of all, the Buxton Chorus (pictured above) is effectively 24-strong (including two smaller named roles of the cast) and delivers a thrilling sound. Among many highlights, the Act One finale (with blood-brotherhood smearing of paint on hands and faces all round – just like in Opera North’s Parsifal!) was one of the best. Thalia Knights and Ellie Neate in Antonio e CleopatraThe Northern Chamber Orchestra, led by Nicholas Ward, was with Kelly every beat of the way, and skilfully controlled by him to ensure that above all, the singing counted most. This year the BIF has put considerable resources into presenting Laurents, Sondheim and Styne’s musical, Gypsy, as a joint production with Buxton Opera House, directed by its Sondheim-loving boss, Paul Kerryson, but the only other fully festival-produced opera on offer is Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra, a two-act baroque serenata for just two singers. It’s presented in the small Pavilion Theatre and showcases the talents of mezzo Thalie Knights and soprano Ellie Neate in the respective roles (pictured above). The staging (Evangeline Cullingworth, director; Grace Venning, set and costume designer) is rudimentary, bringing the protagonists into the present day as an apparently on-their-beam-ends young couple with a suitcase of random possessions over which to bemoan their fate, but the singing is highly accomplished.

The festival has three other operas in its schedule: one is Waterperry Opera Festival’s Mansfield Park (Alasdair Middleton and Jonathan Dove’s chamber opera, after Jane Austen); another a single night visit from Violet, by Tom Coult (Music Theatre Wales and Britten Pears Arts’ co-production); and the third a piece called Viva la Diva, a Salzburger Landestheater production created in association with BIF, which reimagines a Donizetti comedy (originally Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali).

Mansfield Park is a beautiful piece and was beautifully done by the Waterperry singers, but St John’s Church, where sightlines and acoustics meant that most of the audience could not see most of the cast or hear most of the words most of the time, was not the right venue.

VViva la Divaiva la Diva, the main comic offering at Buxton, is about a small opera company, its bosses and performers, putting on a show against all the odds, financial and individual, that beset it. Its Salzburg incarnation has been thoroughly adapted by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, placing it in the High Peak (surprise, surprise) and fitting new words around Donizetti’s music.

It's good to see that Buxton is capable of laughing at its (imagined) self, and the cast are quite capable of sending themselves up as well as singing some of their material straight and very well. We begin in the audition process, progress through rehearsals constantly wrecked by petty vanities and rivalries, and after the interval see a supposed “performance” that becomes The Opera That Goes Wrong. It’s all harmless fun, but not perhaps as slick and smooth as it might have been. George Humphreys (pictured above with Quentin Hayes), in drag as a very deep-voiced mezzo who towers above her tiny Italian tenor (Joseph Doody) more or less steals the show, but there are excellent performances also from Richard Burkhard, Olivia Carrell, Jenny Stafford, Lauren Young, Quentin Hayes and Raimundas Juzuitis. 

  • Remaining performances: La Donna del Lago 15, 17 and 22 July; Gypsy 16, 20 and 24 July; Antonio e Cleopatra 16, 20 and 22 July; Mansfield Park 18 and 21 July; Violet 18 July; Viva la Diva 19, 21 and 23 July
  • More opera reviews on theartsdesk


I agree with the above review of La Donna Del Lago regarding the Chorus. They were absolutely superb and they were the stars of the show for me. However , I didn't like the production and I thought the sets and costumes were awful. Not a hint of Scotland or the boat drifting over the lake which was one of the sensations of the original production.

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