Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, set by Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, was written in 1810 and became hugely influential in popularising the Romantic image of Scotland in Britain and beyond and boosted the Scottish tourist industry. It soon attracted the attention of Rossini (through a French translation) and his operatic version, La donna del lago, was first performed in Naples in 1819. It remained popular until the middle of the century when it disappeared, until it was revived in Florence in 1958. Since then it has been on the fringes of the international repertoire. It was due to be performed at the Buxton International Festival in 2020 but fell victim to the pandemic and now has eventually reached Buxton for five performances, directed by Jacopo Spirei and conducted by Giulio Cilona. Two other performances were conducted by Adrian Kelly, artistic director of the Festival.

Máire Flavin (Elena)
© Genevieve Girling

Rossini shares the honours between five principals, all of whom have substantial solos. He gives the chorus a major role – they are like characters in their own right and contribute to the unique character of the opera. In addition, he brings colour to the orchestra with imaginative instrumentation.

King James V of Scotland (1512–1542) really did travel round Scotland incognito but the rest of the plot is an invention of Scott’s. Ellen Douglas (Elena in the opera), is the daughter of a rebel (Duglas) who has been sheltered by the Highland chieftain Roderick Dhu (Rodrigo). Duglas has agreed that Elena will marry Rodrigo but she loves Malcolm Graeme, who transfers his allegiance from the king to the rebel Highlanders. Ellen encounters the disguised king (as Uberto in the opera) and the plot is set in motion.

John Irvin (Rodrigo), Catherine Carby (Malcolm), David Ireland (Duglas) and chorus
© Genevieve Girling

The Northern Chamber Orchestra was on top form, making the most of the Romantic colour that Rossini adds to his orchestra with the use of horns in the hunting scenes, trumpets in the military episodes and a harp in some lyrical sections, notably in Uberto’s offstage aria in the second act. The chorus, including several members of the Festival’s Young Artist Programme, were in fine voice and their substantial contribution helped to make this a special musical experience.

Ultimately, though, the success of a performance of this opera depends in the ability of five soloists to deliver Rossini’s virtuosic, taxing music. La donna del lago is not an opera where psychological insight is key, nor is dramatic tension. What we need is dazzling singing, and that is what we got. None of this evening’s five principals was flawless but all of them gave thoroughly committed and spirited performances. The ensembles were thrilling.

Catherine Carby (Malcolm)
© Genevieve Girling

Mezzo Catherine Carby was outstanding in the trouser role of Malcom. She showed spectacular agility and control in her two arias. Of our two tenors, Nico Darmanin as Uberto and John Irvin as Rodrigo, the former stood out, especially in the opening scene and his duet with Elena. Darmanin ensured that the vocal fireworks were expressive as well as sparkling. Irvin had fine moments but sometimes his voice was rather harsh and the trio for the two tenors and the heroine was not the highlight we might have expected. David Ireland gave a strong and dramatic account of Duglas. Elena was Máire Flavin who carried off the lyrical and coloratura elements of her demanding role with aplomb. The opera ends with a scintillating rondo for Elena with the chorus; Flavin dazzled and brought this glorious opera to a stunning conclusion. The smaller roles deserve credit too: Fiona Finsbury as Albina and Robert Lewis as Serano sang very strongly and William Searle impressed in his brief contribution as Bertram.

Nico Darmanin (Uberto), John Irvin (Rodrigo) and Máire Flavin (Elena)
© Genevieve Girling

All that was needed to make this a truly memorable performance would have been a sympathetic staging. Instead, Spirei offered one of the most confusing and ugliest productions I have ever seen in the theatre. At the beginning, we saw an archaeological excavation – but this wasn't immediately obvious. The second half seemed to be in a museum. Loch Katrine was reduced to a rocky pool and Elena’s toy boat elicited sniggers from the audience. The costumes of the Highlanders were ragged with suggestions of Roman togas; those of the huntsmen and the king’s courtiers displayed a bizarre mixture of styles with allusions to medieval and modern dress. Only Elena’ appearance was consistent with her role. Sadly the style of the production seemed constantly at odds with the music, the plot and the singing. From a musical perspective this was a Donna del lago to treasure; sadly the production undermined it.