Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake appeared in 1810; only months later year it had been turned into a play with music, and the next year, taking the form of a music-drama, it was given at Covent Garden under the title The Knight of Snowdoun. Scott (and Scot) fever reached Naples in 1819 with Rossini’s treatment of the poem, set to a libretto he had asked Leone Tottola to write after either reading Scott’s poem (in French) or hearing enough about it to whet his appetite. It was the first opera on a Scottish theme; soon northern landscapes with their mists and moors infiltrated all of European music – I puritani and Lucia di Lammermoor followed, as did Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and “Scottish” Symphony. English Romanticism and romantically pictured landscapes became subject matter – the kind of thing that would have surprised Mozart.

Joyce DiDonato (Elena) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Elena)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

At any rate, we are in 16th century Scotland, and highlanders are rebelling against King James – Giacomo V, in the libretto. Their leader is Duglas d'Angus, whose lovely daughter, Elena (the “lady”), is in love with Malcolm Groeme, a highlander, but Duglas want Elena to marry his chief warrior, Rodrigo. Early on, Giacomo, having lost his way in a hunt (the orchestra includes six horns) and in disguise (as Uberto), happens upon Elena and falls in love with her. Rodrigo eventually dies in battle and Elena, Duglas and Malcolm wind up at the king’s palace to ask for mercy. He forgives them all and blesses the marriage of Malcolm and Elena. Rossini’s vocal lines, as usual, mirror the inner (and outer) torment of his characters, showcasing the singers’ legatos and pyrotechnical abilities, but here he also uses gentle folk-like melodies and Scottish “snap” rhythms; he seems properly intoxicated with picturesque highlands, mountains and valleys, not to mention Loch Katrine. Elena’s friends sing a gentle song and Elena’s first arietta is a simple aubade; before the battling begins, it’s soft and mellow music.

It’s a good thing, too, as the settings in the new Met production are more menacing (and ugly) than bucolic. As the opening chorus sings of the sun’s rays, we see a gloom-filled sky in Kevin Knight’s conception; there’s no lake, no skiff. Elena wanders onto the stage, a breeze in her hair, seemingly searching for heather which is in short supply; the earth is parched, and what little shrubbery there is, is around the edges of the playing area. When the scene changes to her hut, in which she welcomes “Uberto”, it is tiny and simple to a fault. Act II opens with Uberto’s grand aria, sung against a background of severed heads on poles; color enters at Giacomo’s court – all golds and red – but it’s too late. The peasant dress is peasant-like and bland (Knight did the costumes as well) and never, I suspect, have kilts looked so ill-fitting and dreary. The cornflower blue paint that the warriors smear on their faces helps, but only briefly – it got a laugh from the Met audience. Paul Curran’s direction was good – characters interact well, those in hiding convince, warriors act gruesome, Elena’s friends are sweet.

Joyce DiDonato (Elena) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Joyce DiDonato (Elena)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The proof is in the singing, of course; this is Rossini. Joyce DiDonato remains a paragon of taste and artistry in this type of music, and she even emotes enough to make us care about poor Elena, who has three boyfriends and a father she’s trying not to offend. The fireworks are gentle at first, with small embellishments to Elena’s aubade, and they become more expressive and impressive as the evening progresses, ending with a staggering, one-of-a-kind “Tanti affetti”. One notices the voice taking on a wiry tinge at sustained fortes occasionally, but overall, it’s a performance that should not be missed.

Juan Diego Flórez, acting precisely as he does as Almaviva and Arturo (in Puritani), manages Giacomo’s/Uberto’s dazzlingly florid music with ringing tone and seeming ease, with a just a bit of a squeeze in the very highest notes, but in essence, he is just as engaging as he was ten years ago – quite a feat. John Osborn, as Rodrigo, acted more the warrior than he sounded it; his voice is slighter than Florez’s but no less capable of quick divisions. Every high C was in place but a few were not easy on the ear; in Act II when he and Flórez trade them in a battle of wills, I fear Osborn came in second. Daniela Barcellona, cutting a disappointing figure in the travesty role of Malcolm (a clumsy costume, and, heaven help us, a beard), sang with her usual assurance and fine tone, but seemed vaguely disinterested: granted the role is non-dimensional, but both of her arias normally make more of an imprint. Oren Gradus failed to impress as Duglas, the voice was weak at both ends in his aria. The smaller roles were well-taken.

John Osborn (Rodrigo), Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Juan Diego Flórez (Giacomo) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
John Osborn (Rodrigo), Joyce DiDonato (Elena) and Juan Diego Flórez (Giacomo)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Michele Mariotti is proving to be the go-to conductor for bel canto at the Met; his previous Puritani was as fine as his leadership here. Stressing the lyrical sections of the score was a grand idea – the music is utterly beautiful – and he also made the most of the big choruses, even the ones that make no sense: who invites a chorus of Bards to a party?

There are seven more performances this season. This is a great show to listen to.