Buxton International Festival – Rossini’s La Donna del Lago – with Máire Flavin, Catherine Carby & Nico Darmanin; directed by Jacopo Spirei; conducted by Giulio Cilona

La Donna del Lago – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola after Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]

Uberto – Nico Darmanin
Elena – Máire Flavin
Rodrigo – John Irvin
Malcolm – Catherine Carby
Duglas – David Ireland
Albina – Fiona Finsbury
Serano – Robert Lewis
Bertram – William Searle

Buxton Festival Chorus

Northern Chamber Orchestra
Giulio Cilona

Jacopo Spirei – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Designer
Erika Gundesen – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 July, 2022
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Derbyshire, England

Just as Walter Scott romanticised and packaged the Scottish past within a particular historiographical manner in his popular novels, which many composers immediately adapted for the stage to great acclaim, so Jacopo Spirei here sets Rossini’s version of The Lady of the Lake within a museum-like metatheatrical frame to set at a dramatically objective, historicising distance this particular (and now much less fashionable) form of romantic opera (or ‘melodramma’ in Rossini’s designation). In the process Spirei creates perhaps not so much a story-within-a-story as a history-within-a-history. Once the concept is set up at the outset, however, it remains a rather static idea, instead of dynamically generating any further angles upon Scott’s largely invented story of a rebellion during the reign of James V (even if it is true that no less than Werner Herzog could only make disappointingly little of the scenario in his 1992 production for La Scala, preserved on film). 

Archaeologists are excavating through the tiled floor of an ancient house – presumably that of Elena – to one side of which is a fireplace, and at the other a covered well. That seems an underwhelming substitute for the eponymous lake, but just possibly it is meant to invoke some local significance to Buxton, set in an area in the Peak District where the surrounding villages dress the wells each year in the recreation of an ancient pagan ceremony – although admittedly the well here is not decorated. The (silent) archaeologists soon disappear, leaving only the minor part of Albina in contemporary dress to linger on stage, as though a museum attendant or onlooker from the present upon the historical action that then unfolds by the characters in adapted late mediaeval attire. 

With the floor half broken up, that leaves two awkwardly delineated areas on the stage for the cast to assemble, and so choreographically the production remains frustratingly immobile – struggling to bring to life this opera of exactly the type that gave rise to stereotypical notions of dramatic inertia and ‘park and bark’ singers who were unable or unwilling to act. In the second part the museum concept vaguely re-emerges, with a modern screen of black panels which reveals a heaped group of war-dead, and later a short chic white staircase that ironically stands in as the throne of James (the disguised Uberto). Modern and mediaeval merge more comprehensively by the end of the narrative, with the black clad, Goth-like soldiers of the kings’ army, again offering slick visual spectacle but little truly insightful comment upon the opera. In principle Spirei’s concept is an entirely reasonable re-interpretation of this tricky genre, which today’s audiences find hard to digest, but it is a pity that it is not realised with more thoroughgoing vigour and evolution.

An excellent and committed cast potently bring the work to life at the musical level, despite the longueurs of some of its numbers (in which Rossini gives generous scope for the demonstration of the art of bel canto). Máire Flavin floats a captivatingly soft, mellifluous vocal line in Elena’s more heartfelt, introspective music, but reveals some more powerful reserves later on to create engaging variety and complexity. If anything, Catherine Carby sustains an even greater control and beauty of sound for the trouser role of Malcolm in his two wonderful arias – the highlights of the work, apart from Elena’s concluding rondo (where Flavin is a little submerged). Nico Darmanin and John Irvin sing the two major tenor parts with wonderful dexterity, their coloratura remaining clear and elegant, and their high notes unstrained – ringingly so on Darmanin’s part. It is only a slight roughness in Irvin’s lower range which lets him down a little, counteracting to a degree Rodrigo’s menace as the leader of the rebels, to whom Elena is to be wed.

David Ireland is suitably rugged in voice as Duglas, Elena’s uncompromising father, whilst creditable performances by the other singers complement those of the principals. Hearty singing and lively gestures from the chorus ensure that the assembled troops play a fully involved part in the action, whilst Giulio Cilona leads the Norther Chamber Orchestra in a well-paced account of the score. The somewhat smaller-than-normal ensemble provides lean and fluid support, with Cilona imbuing the performance with energy where needed, but also giving the arias space to breathe as necessary. If only the production itself kept up with the virtuosic standards of the music this would be a top-notch realisation of Rossini, many of whose operas still need some special pleading in order to grip the attention of audiences. 

Further performances to July 22

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