Written in 1819 and belonging to the opera seria chapter of Rossini’s career, the florid score of La donna del lago doesn’t so much respond to as resist its unabashedly romantic libretto. Within twenty years of the opera’s composition Sir Walter Scott’s Highland epics had spawned a further two dozen operatic spin-offs, but far from venturing onto psychodramatic territory as Donizetti did in Lucia di Lammermoor, Rossini only seldom permits the emotional immediacy of an unadorned vocal line. The ensemble numbers yield only fleeting moments of self-contemplation for the characters to examine their actions and it is mostly in the orchestration, continued in the vein of Rossini’s Otello and a world removed in many places from the customary sunshine and verve of his comedies, that a genuinely dramatic urgency is to be heard. Ultimately Rossini’s cautious classical instincts prove dramatically fatal as there is not enough thematic material to go around the cast and characters are often found expressing violently conflicting sentiments to the same recurring musical strains.

© Monika Rittershaus
© Monika Rittershaus

While the score may well be more sympathetically appreciated as a vehicle for a first-rate bel canto cast, there can be no talking in relative terms of the level required; Rossini’s ruthlessly difficult vocal writing spares no mercies and demands luxury casting for each of the four big roles. The cast fielded for this production all tried valiantly but, with one exception, came repeatedly unstuck. As Elena, the female lead and titular lady of the lake chased across the Scottish Highlands by three amorous suitors, Malena Ernman got the better of her coloratura runs by the opera’s closing rondo, the first and somewhat belated moment in the entire opera when the role did not sound like a poor fit for her voice. Her congested timbre disappeared in ensembles and earthy low notes stuck out weirdly in writing not specifically intended to show off this register, while the agility needed for all the virtuosic roulades, which are strewn liberally throughout the opera, was missing until the end.

As Uberto, Elena’s first admirer and King James V of Scotland travelling incognito, Luciano Botelho showed an old school Rossini tenor sound which tended towards stringiness when under strain and succumbed to an unhealthy strangled tone for the cruel demands of the Act II trio (written for the singular abilities of Giovanni David, the flowery running jumps taken up to repeated top Cs were cut by Rossini when he moved to Paris, as might also have been wise here). Veteran Rossini tenor Gregory Kunde, singing Rodrigo, the handsome rebel warrior Elena’s parents would prefer her to marry, was on deafeningly heroic form befitting his dim strong-man character, but sounded oddly hoarse in his more tender arioso singing. Varduhi Abrahamyan’s turn in the breeches role of Malcolm, Elena’s one true and rather reticent love, was the only leading performance not in need of qualifying beyond occasionally questionable Italian; her smoky mezzo had appealing vocal presence to it in the lyric numbers and negotiated the omnipresent fioritura frills with the most ease of all the cast. Maurizio Muraro threw his patriarchal weight around as Elena’s overbearing father with invariably booming tone and Bénédicte Tauran was fine as Elena’s unprepossessing confidante Albina.

The chorus interjects from time to time to remind us that the action is set against the turbulence of regional uprisings, and though playing assorted rebels and bandits the Arnold Schoenberg Chor sounded a little too disorderly and quite unlike their usual outstanding selves. Discipline and an idiomatic flair was also lacking in the RSO Wien’s playing, with the score sounding like many things, including at one point a fruity clarinet straight out of Schubert, but never Rossini. The basics of Rossini conducting mostly eluded Leo Hussain, who was unable to hold a pause for his leads’ climactic moments and failed to kickstart the normally unstoppable momentum of the famous Rossini crescendo.

Director Christof Loy has relocated the action to a rural village hall in some undefined post-war decade and found numerous inventive ways to recast the various situations thrown up by the libretto: the rebels become am dram enthusiasts rehearsing for the village play, Elena’s reckoning with the men in her life is set at a boisterous ceilidh with social tensions rising too rapidly for comfort, and the fight between Rodrigo and Uberto is staged as a characteristically British pub brawl. The curious problem of Elena investing little energy in the relationship she claims to want is given the alter ego treatment, with Malcolm showing a conflicted side to her personality and even at one appearing dressed in Rodrigo’s kilt. At the very end Elena frees herself of her shadow, removing the impediment to nuptials with James V. This is not how the ending turns out in the libretto but Loy pulls it off plausibly and as with all the stage action it is efficiently blocked. It is hard to be offended by the gentle humour of Loy’s other devices to deal with the text, but if one reservation may be voiced it is that they are effective in themselves but seem rather pointless when stacked up.