Gioachino Rossini’s La donna del lago, a two-act opera based on Sir Walter Scott’s poetical epic The Lady of the Lake, enjoyed widespread popularity for several decades following its premiere in 1819, but after that the world tucked it in for a century-long nap. Since its modern revival in 1958, it has been presented by various companies, and in the past few years a small handful of productions have starred American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the demanding title role of Elena, the part she upholds with impressive aplomb in the production that opened Saturday night at Santa Fe Opera.
The piece requires singers skilled in the strenuous demands of bel canto vocal style, artists who can negotiate rapid figuration by the furlong, passing seamlessly from their highest notes to their lowest and vice-versa (dauntingly difficult), apportioning the countless tiny notes of these roulades to clarify an overarching phrase. DiDonato did not sing a measure all evening that failed to proclaim mastery of this style. From the very opening notes of her entrance aria, “O, mattutini albori!” she rendered everything with complete security. (The melody of this aria returns repeatedly in the course of the opera; listeners will have no trouble remembering it, as it oddly prefigures the tune chimed in a later era by Mister Softee ice-cream trucks.) Her entrance was simple but visually striking. The set having been cleared of a motley bunch of peasants, she strolls down from the back of the stage across a hardscrabble expanse of Scottish countryside that supports only a few sprigs of heather. The open-air stage-back allowed a passing breeze to tousle her tresses, and her unaffected bearing clarified the production’s naturalistic aspirations. DiDonato offered everything opera aficionados have grown to expect of her, her voice proving rich but never heavy, her broad dynamic range projecting clearly even when soft, and her stamina seeing her through with unwavering security through to her dazzling rondo-finale, the famous “Tanti affetti,” in which she offered some superbly executed trills — something we hear rarely.
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