Curtain Call for Met’s La Donna Del Lago

Sprezzatura, or Rossini’s La Donna del lago in HD
March 16, 2015

As a lover of language almost as much as a lover of music, I have always been partial to the Italian word sprezzatura, coined by Baldassare Castiglione in the early 1500’s in his Book of the Courtier. Sprezzaturais usually translated as “nonchalance”–a French-derived word which is not the same thing at all. One can be a fake and nonchalant, which suggests coolness or not caring. But sprezzatura indicates the seeming lack of effort, without which difficult feats lose their value. For Castiglione, a true courtier needed not only to be a good dancer, fencer, fighter, athlete, musician and so forth, and to do all those things with grace–but the successful practitioner had to make them seem easy, as easy as breathing. It is not enough to be a good tennis player; it has to seem that being good is no effort at all, in fact that anyone could do it.

All of this came to my mind as I watched the HD cinecast of Rossini’s opera seria La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) on Saturday morning. Here were arguably the greatest singers in the world singing some of the most difficult music in existence, and they made it look easy, as if we could all do it if we just concentrated. Behind every batch of thirty-second notes, behind every trill and high C, behind every octave drop there is a phenomenal amount of practice and, of course, native talent. And no way could we do it, even if we sang in the shower for six hours a day. Watching Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcellona, Juan Diego Florez and John Osborn perform was in some ways like watching the greatest athletes in a legendary Olympics of the Voice. There is great pleasure to be had watching people who are so good do their thing in a manner which makes it seem so easy. Had there been huffs and puffs or sweat pouring off their faces, even if they sang all the notes, it would not have been as good: they would have lacked sprezzatura.

Rossini’s beautiful opera had never been at the Met before, in fact after 1850 it had pretty much died out everywhere until it was revived about fifty years ago. Still, it was quite rarely performed until recently when singers trained to Rossini’s art and able to sing the music well started populating the world’s stages. Music which can seem dull on the page takes off if sung with sensitivity by the right singers. In my youth, singers trained to sing Puccini would take on Rossini’s opera serias on the rare occasions when they were revived, and it sounded dutiful but a little dull. Take the cabalettas (fast parts) of the two arias for Malcolm, sung by a deep mezzo or a contralto. Particularly the first one, “Oh quante lacrime” (“Ah, how many tears”) can sound banal, but Daniela Barcellona invested it with such emotion and perfect art that it was moving and anything but banal. Rossini composed for great singers, and he expected them to interpret his music almost as co-equal creators. Without singers able to do that, the music falls flat.

All four of the principal singers were just superb, and they all acted well too, led by DiDonato, who is an absolutely natural actress with a gorgeous voice and stunning technique. Maybe (to nitpick) she has lost a little of her luster at age 46, but she is still at the top of her game. Juan Diego Florez does not look so boyish anymore (he is 42); he looks more like the king he played, but he sings like a god in all his glory, tossing off the coloratura and the high notes with such abandon. Barcellona has a deep and moving voice and her second aria, “Ah! si pera” (“Ah, let me die”) with its changing harmonies (one of Rossini’s happiest creations) was a high point for me. In the intermission interview, John Osborn, when asked what he thought when he first looked at the score, said something like, “How do I cut the low notes!” Maybe he did. Rossini composed the role of Rodrigo for Andrea Nozzari, a “bari-tenor.” He specialized in being able to sing really low notes (for a tenor) as well as the high C’s; leaps from high to low were his specialty. Maybe I missed it, but I think Osborn cut some of those low notes. He had no fear of the stratosphere, however, and the trio in Act II when the two tenors exchange a battalion of high C’s was great–more exciting than a duel with swords and knives.

The Met’s production, by Paul Curran, was essentially the same as it had been at the Santa Fe Opera two years ago. It is naturalistic, but not all that good, and the sets are just not up to the Met’s best standards. However, in HD in the movie theater, that aspect was minimized by the closeups. The cheesiness of the overall settings was not frequently apparent, and the costumes were good. Ms. DiDonato was appropriately fetching and Mr. Florez did not have to wear a kilt. A singer of his pedigree can probably have a “No Kilt” clause in his contract.

In Santa Fe, at the start of Act II, the sparse set was littered with severed heads on pikes, an odd setting for the King’s love song “Oh fiamma soave” (“Oh sweet flame”)–and contrary to the setting specified in both poem and libretto. At the Met, all the heads but two had disappeared, and if you did not know what they were, you might have missed even those in the HD broadcast. Instead, we got flaming crosses at the end of Act I, which were not used in Santa Fe. One reviewer complained that the crosses were out of line because they reminded him of the Ku Klux Klan’s nasty habit of burning crosses. I suppose he did not know that the crosses are in Scott’s poem as a way of summoning the Highland Clans, and that D.W. Griffith picked it up from the poem and put it into his movie The Birth of a Nation, from whence the Klan picked up the habit. In Santa Fe, the Bards entered for their beautiful chorus carrying glowing blue rocks, which were fortunately gone from the Met, but the Bards still looked like stoned hippies in blue body paint. Scott makes it clear that Bards are not wild hippyish prophets; they are singers and poets, and I doubt that bards in early sixteenth century Scotland wore blue body paint.

On the other hand, the acting in the Met version was well thought out and realized through all the merciless close-ups. I thought that the 3 1/2 hours in the movie theater sped by; even the intermission feature was more interesting than usual, less gush, more solid information from the singers being interviewed. Joyce DiDonato’s observations about the heroine’s peacemaking and conductor Michele Mariotti’s observations about Elena’s suppressed love for Uberto/Giacomo were interesting.

In this case, I liked the HD broadcast version better than seeing the production in person (in Santa Fe). And the singing is not to be surpassed in our time, and maybe ever. All in all, a tuneful opera with a happy conclusion in a magnificent (vocal) performance.