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La Donna del Lago

Tottola and Rossini, after Walter Scott

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

July 8, 12, 15, 17, 22, 2022; 2hrs 50min

Máire Flavin as Elena and cast in Buxton International Festival's production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago.
Triumphant: Máire Flavin as Elena and cast in Buxton International Festival's production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago. All pics: Genevieve Girling

After the outright cancellation of 2020 and constrained conditions of 2021, Buxton International Festival is back and firing on all cylinders this year. And its operatic flagship is a masterwork by Rossini.

Written in 1819, La Donna del Lago was inspired by Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake, and is an early example in European opera of full-blown Romantic ideas coming to the fore – war and peace, love and rivalry, wild and remote locations, supposed ancient traditions and figures from the past. There’s even a reference, not taken from Scott, to characters in the writings of the mythical Scottish bard, “Ossian”, a literary fake that hoodwinked most people at the time.

Musically, we find Rossini on the cusp of using new-fangled Romantic language in his otherwise cute-and-classical writing: off-stage horn calls, tremolando strings, the sound of the harp to convey local colour (no matter that there’s nothing specially Scottish about it). At the same time he was going all out for popular appeal, and one of the climactic numbers is a competitive duet for love-rival tenors in which the dramatic tension is reflected vocally by bursts of repeated high Cs (and more) from both of them.

The story is fairly simple: Elena (the Lady in question) is the daughter of a chieftain whose loyalty used to lie with the King but who is now mixed up with rebel Highlanders. He’s betrothed her to their leader, but she really loves another. The King, disguised, falls for her too (hence the two-tenors rivalry). Battle goes badly for the rebels, but Elena seeks to save her father and her true love, and in the end… well, I won’t give it all away.

Director Jacopo Spirei and designer Madeleine Boyd have staged the opera in a way that conveys general impressions – ragged clothes for the Highland warriors, shiny techno-style costumes for the King and his forces; a interior/exterior set to provide the lakeside locale for the first act and a geometric, power-lit coldness for the King’s palace in the second… showing there’s a clash of cultures as well as of loyalties, a nice gloss on the storyline. The use of a tiny model boat to represent what the script says is Elena’s offer to her visitor of a trip across the lake, got a bit of a titter from the audience – but what else can you do on a stage like Buxton’s?

What you need for this opera to work is two tenors with first-class Italian-style top registers: tick – Buxton has Nico Darmanin and John Irvin. You also need a really good bass-baritone and a virtuosic wide-ranging mezzo (for the trouser role of Elena’s warrior true love: tick – Buxton has David Ireland and Catherine Carby. And above all you need an utterly wonderful soprano as Elena: Buxton has Máire Flavin, and her rondó finale at the end brings the whole thing to a triumphant close, as it did on the first night in 1819 and needs to every time.

So the casting is top-class. So is the chorus, all 22 of them plus some minor role singers, too. Buxton has nobly managed so often in the past with a small-scale body, but at last it’s great to hear a full-throated crowd of them in the bright Opera House acoustic.

The musical direction, by festival artistic director Adrian Kelly, is full of energy and impact. The Northern Chamber Orchestra plays with precision and panache, and the whole thing rattles by with both brilliance of coloratura technique and glorious tone production from all the principals.

(Giulio Cilona conducts on July 12, 15 and 17).

Info and tickets here


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