La Donna del Lago, one of Rossini's less familiar operas, was to have been the Buxton Festival's headline production for 2020. Now it has finally arrived on stage, and it's been worth the wait.
Based on Walter Scott's narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, it started the trend for operas based on his work; his romanticised vision of Scottish life went down a storm in Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth century. It is a convoluted tale of rival clans and tangled love-interests. Elena, the lady of the title, who crosses the lake in a boat every morning in the hope of seeing her lover, Malcom, meets instead a man calling himself Uberto, who is really King James V in disguise. He takes a fancy to her but soon learns that she is due to marry Rodrigo, a Highland chief who opposes him. Elena's father, Duglas, James' former tutor, has switched sides; Malcom, who we later see exchanging vows with Elena, has also joined the rebels. With me so far?
Director Jacopo Spirei sets the action across two periods, the sixteenth century of Scott's original setting, and the present day. At the start, an archaeological dig is in progress, centred on an ancient well-head, supervised by Albina (in the original scenario, Elena's confidante).
Then the sixteenth-century characters come onto the scene, as the archaeologists disperse, leaving Albina to watch, from her present-day vantage-point, and eventually become caught up in the action. In Act II, the site of the dig has become a museum, with the well roped off, and with Albina as tour guide.
In the title role, Máire Flavin has the vocal resources to project both Elena's strength and her vulnerability.
Catherine Carby, in the trouser-role of Malcom, is a no less forceful presence, warm-toned and heroic by turns.
The two join in a tender, barcarolle-like duet. Nico Darmanin's Uberto is convincing as the king who is concealing his real identity. The role often takes him to the top of his range, which he navigates with ease. John Irvin has the vocal flexibility for the role of Rodrigo, though his physical presence tends towards the stereotyped.
David Ireland captures Duglas' patriarchal (not in a good way) character, and Fiona Finsbury is a warmly sympathetic Albina.
Jake Wiltshire's lighting is notable particularly for its atmospheric use of shadows. The Festival's house band, the Northern Chamber Orchestra, is alertly responsive, and conductor Adrian Kelly keeps everything taut and focused.
Copyright © 16 July 2022