The magic spell that enchanted Paul Curran's La donna del lago when it dazzled Santa Fe Opera audiences at its 2013 première in the southwestern Sunbelt city has been broken. At the Metropolitan Opera, Gioachino Rossini’s bel canto composition under Curran read vacuous despite a starry, authoritative cast and a specialist conductor.

Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Lawrence Brownlee (Uberto) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Lawrence Brownlee (Uberto)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The recent renaissance of Rossini's Tartan kilts and chilly knees is merit to an acclaimed 2011 Lluìs Pasqual production, which painted the refined, bel canto vertex in Klimt-like kaleidoscopic brocades, rich leather underpinnings and filigreed metal scales. Sold-out theaters under its august co-producers Teatro alla Scala and the Opéra national de Paris – Covent Garden bowed out and commissioned its own production – cheered bel canto beauties such as Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez in title roles.

Here, in the Santa Fe/Met Opera embodiment, Curran was predominantly faithful to the medieval Scottish Highlands of Rossini's 1819 melodrama in two acts under Andrea Leone Tottola's libretto, inspired by Sir Walter Scott's romantic, narrative poem. Yet for an opera modeled by great poetry, there was little romanticism, lyricism or vitality behind Curran's stagecraft, blind to aestheticism and beauty.

Joyce DiDonato (Elena) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Elena)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Kevin Knight on sets and costumes economized the Ben Ledi Mountain into sparse, dry grasses and silt over a raked platform, no hint of Loch Katrine or its misty shore. The Duglas lakeside hut anchored a charming vignette redolent of miniature interiors from Flemish triptychs, matched to peasants with scythes and matronly silhouettes of Bruegel’s oils.

Dim lights by Duane Schuler of smudged, dusky palls and milky glazes camouflaged the unimaginative black walls framing the scenography. Costumes of synthetic Tartans and slipshod gold brocade were dispiritedly draped over plasticized belts and dull swords. At the back of the stage, video projections by Driscoll Otto were reductive screensavers of Photoshop-filtered atmospheres. High color was relegated to rebel Highlander clans with flaming crosses while the final scene in Giacomo V's Throne Room lit in gilded radiance was bafflingly hollow.

Luckily, Rossini's stunning bel canto fireworks were entrusted to authorities such as DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee and maestro Michele Mariotti. As Elena, DiDonato was a pleasant, warm, joyous lass with an easy smile in cornflower blue skirts. At times, however, the sweet serenity was too disarming, like during the Act I duettinos with Brownlee in language that was too intimate, immodest and unchaste for Curran’s traditional mien. Wandering heart arias were sung in gilded, polished tones with superlative, masterful coloratura and agility. Exemplary control and brilliant, luminous high notes marked her opening cavatina. The “Tanti affetti” finale was a technical masterpiece of floridity, glissandos and trills.

Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Oren Gradus (Duglas) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Oren Gradus (Duglas)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Brownlee’s Giacomo V/Uberto was sensitive, sincere, intelligent and charismatic. The high-and-tight tenor tackled Rossini’s tricky vocal arcs with great extensions, agility and a luminous, bright squillo over high coloratura. His Act II cavatina "Oh fiamma soave" showed easy ornamentation and confident technique.

As an attentive warrior, Daniela Barcellona's Malcolm was effective, decisive and convincing with smooth, warm mezzo timbres. “Mura felici” highlighted meaty coloratura and agility while a pensive "Ah si pera ormai la morte" kept heavy-handed despair in check. John Osborn sang the Highlander honcho Rodrigo with accented timbres for a heroic cavatina "Eccomi a voi, miei prodi" and a thin but vigorous “Ma dov'è colei”. Oren Gradus' Duglas was a noble Highlander with a respectful "Taci, lo voglio, e basti".

Rossini maestro Mariotti avoided lazy temptations of lush, tweaked color and sourced graceful, gentlemanly, clean, light-handed phrasing, while referencing jovial, liquefied tempi that often ticked Mozartian. Yet despite the charms of the Rossini specialists, there exists no captain nor crew skilled enough to stop a sinking ship from hitting the bottom of the ocean – all they can do is delay the sinking.

**111