sat 13/07/2024

La donna del lago, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

La donna del lago, Royal Opera

La donna del lago, Royal Opera

Joyce DiDonato, Juan Diego Flórez and Michael Spyres triumph over adversity

Joyce DiDonato, forever plaid, at the finaleAll photos © Bill Cooper

I mean, really, what is the point of Rossini? That’s actually not as stupid as it sounds. No-one has ever mistaken any of his operas for taut music-drama, and even the best of them are peculiarly difficult to pull off because without first-rate singers, everything collapses. That is, without doubt, not a problem facing the Royal Opera’s new La donna del lago. Trust me: London hasn’t heard such spectacular Rossini singing in decades.

Nor, indeed, has London seen a production of this opera since Covent Garden’s 1985 outing which, I’m reliably informed, boasted (good news) the great Marilyn Horne as Malcolm (bad news) in a terrible kilt. And kilts are back again, as expected in Italian opera’s first adaptation of a Walter Scott novel, a derivation that, in his house main-stage debut, director John Fulljames is insistent upon bringing to our attention.

He frames the action within a highly conservative gentleman’s club, emblematic of the Royal Society of Edinburgh where Scott became president in 1820, the year after the opera’s premiere. He even turns the role of Serano into a Scott-like figure who guides and oversees the action from one side of the stage with Albina, dressed as Rossini, on the other.

Celebrating all things civilised and Scottish, society members cluster around glass display cabinets housing key props and images and, initially, Joyce DiDonato’s Elena. It’s a decision oddly reminiscent of Nicholas Hytner and David Fielding’s celebrated and oft-revived ENO production of Handel’s Xerxes with which it also shares a back wall painted with an image of a landscape doubling as interior and exterior.

The wall slides open to reveal Dick Bird’s huge winding staircase creating height and a hillside in a forest of tree trunks, caught in Bruno Poet’s lighting. The problem, however, is that the design is more atmospheric than the handling of the action. Fulljames is strong on concept – he puts ideas about nationalism centre-stage in an opera about a popular uprising against a king – but less so on execution (the production team was booed).

The most frustrating element is the lack of detailed acting, particularly in the lengthy first act. He elicits almost no development of thought or feeling from the singers. These characters have largely made their minds up at the beginning of an aria or duet and simply restate their case. To be fair, that’s partly the fault of the libretto with its broad-brushstrokes, three-way love story complete with lovestruck Uberto being, natch, the king in disguise. But more attention to the performers' handling of the material could have created far more tension. Doubts engendered by the heavy-handed production are, however, blasted away by the singing.

This was supposed to be a two-horse race. High-flying house (and world) favourite Joyce DiDonato in the title role is, after all, headlining opposite the Uberto of high-lying tenor Juan Diego Flórez (pictured above right). The latter was, frankly, born to sing this repertoire, his heady, fast-vibrato voice leaping down and up the scale to remarkable top Ds like a devil-may-care hurdler.

They’re matched by the decidedly contralto-toned Malcolm of Daniella Barcellona, who has all the requisite agility that seems all the more impressive in contrast to her glowering (kilted) demeanour. But the shock of the night was American tenor Michael Spyres who, scheduled to make his debut later in the run, stepped in to replace the indisposed Colin Lee as highland chieftan Rodrigo. 

His knockout tenor isn’t so much full-throated as full-bodied, his support so strong that his huge, amazingly virile sound gleams, rising from an astoundingly well-grounded baritone to a ringing top C. It’s a world away from Florez, which made their second act vocal duelling over DiDonato into the most exhilarating, pulse-quickening singing bout - yes, that’s the word – I think I’ve ever heard.

Like the heroine of Rossini’s Cenerentola, another choice DiDonato (pictured left) role, Elena is a character who requires early sustained beauty of tone and increasing passion before letting rip with pyrotechnics in the finale. DiDonato’s technique is so flawless that she can take immense, thrilling risks. She’s supposedly a mezzo, but she does things at the soprano end of her voice that would terrify her peers. Most audaciously, in her exultant "Fra il padre", she dropped to a pianissimo so hushed that, I swear, the entire house held its breath in wonder... before erupting at the curtain-call. Exhilarating.

Watch Joyce DiDonato singing "Fra il padre" in concert


Director John Fulljames introduces the production of La donna del lago


I believe you, David, about the spectacular singing. But I wonder if Florez and Di Donato could be even better than they were in Barber of Seville. As for Marilyn Horne, I remember Martin Hoyle's description of her Malcolm: 'a stout lady in boots'.

I accept that the Barber of S with Florez and DiDinato (in her wheel chair) came as close to a fully realised Gesamtkunstwerk as one might hope for and that La D del L was far from that. Nonetheless, the performances of those two alongside the stunning Daniela Barcellona were truly treasurable. As for the production, was it not, for all its inventiveness, simply proof that modern directors have yet to understand how to handle opera seria, even those like La D del L that are examples of the genre in its final stages?

Great review and as you say the music is sublime and some of the most heart - stoppingly beautiful music Rossini ever wrote. And the Italian text is poetry at its best. But I do take issue with you about the acting. Joyce DiDonato apart from being I think the world's greatest lyric bel canto mezzo in the world and for the last 30 years is a terrific actress and you can see her inhabiting and becoming each character she plays. If she sings as well as she does its because she puts every aspect of the character into the voice.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters