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Rossini La Donna del Lago

June Anderson, Rockwell Blake, Martine Dupuy, Chris Merritt
Director: Werner Herzog
La Scala Orchestra & Chorus/Riccardo Muti

Opus Arte DVD OA LS 3009 D

I need to tread warily on this one, because there are some very mixed reviews to be seen (of the opera itself and of this performance from La Scala, released previously on video).

Although thought by some to be one of Rossini's greatest Neapolitan operas La Donna del Lago is rarely performed, probably due to its demanding florid bel canto vocal writing. I side with Amazon's staff reviewer, who says that La Scala's glorious production is graced by some of today's finest singers and that Riccardo Muti brilliantly emphasizes the work's dramatic plot, beautiful melodic ideas and touches of local color.

We enjoyed it inordinately for home viewing. Set in a dark, glowering ancient Scotland in perpetual strife, battles off stage and three men vying for the love of the soprano, the story is, well, slender. The singing is in this opera (nearly) all - though there is some felicitous orchestration, well pointed by Muti. It turns out to be a Clemenza di Uberto (he's actually the King, to the heroine's surprise) and there is general forgiveness, with Sir Walter Scott's Elena getting her preferred man - the mezzo Martine Dupuy! If you can take all that, read on.

But what singing, as florid as you'll find and (although some critics carp) better than you're likely to encounter in another live performance. Werner Herzog's direction is, you might say, non-interventionist. He lets the principals stand across the stage for ensembles in Maurizio Balo's splendid sets, though otherwise they move rather well. He doesn't try with the chorus. They stand stock still in various groupings, conveying nothing by gesture or facial expression, apparently unaware of the intimacies being exchanged in their hearing (has the La Scala chorus had any movement training?).

Taken for what it is, a period style production which might have a lot in common with those in 19 C Italy, there is a huge amount to enjoy, with Rockwell Blake as the King spectacular in his aria which opens the second act, and June Anderson magnificent throughout her long and demanding role. The others are all strong, and though Chris Merritt might have produced some of Rodrigo's fearsome high notes more cleanly in studio conditions with retakes as needed, I far prefer the tension of a real performance, with its suitably enthusiastic audience.

There are CD versions with Caballé, and from Bongiovanni, also with Rockwell Blake as the King

© Peter Grahame Woolf