It’s not just about “Tanti Affetti” – The music of “La Donna del Lago”

Opera audiences at the time of the composition of La Donna del Lago held surprising sway over what actually appeared on stage. We are used to the stereotypes of hapless singers being ridiculed by fickle audiences who may or may not have known much about the art that was before them.
“The public made its feelings known to composers not just through boos or cheers but also through formal petitions. In 1824, the administration of the Paris Opera made this precise request to Rossini: ‘the public strongly asks that the music played by the stage band in La Donna del Lago be suppressed'”, this according to musical historian, Carlotta Sorba.

In fact, the stage band is quite central to the musical current in this opera and its use remains a challenge to this day. Imagine if Rossini had used bag-pipes instead of hunting horns!!

Alberto Zedda, Rossini scholar and artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival contributed an essay to the 2001 program book for La Donna del Lago. Some of his observations are included below through the kind assistance of the Publication Office of ROF. There are also observations by the Italian musicologist, Luigi Rognoni, as well as a few selections from Youtube.

For a start, Rossini dispenses with an overture. This is somewhat ironic since aside from The Barber of Seville Rossini is perhaps best known to the general public for his overtures . But he gets right to the point of the drama, and as so rightly pointed out by Alberto Zedda the opening chords permeate the entire development of the opera.

Elena’s opening aria, “ Oh mattutini albori”, a barcarolle, is in Zedda’s words pervaded with an elusive and subtle eroticism. Luigi Rognoni went so far as suggesting that this music is a “leit-motiv” which gives this opera some of its Romantic feel.

Here is it sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci

This aria is followed by the appearance of Uberto/Giacomo and the drama commences. Giacomo is enchanted with Elena, and his presence has in turn aroused feelings of restlessness in her. She believes that these feelings are caused by her longing to see Malcom, who has not yet appeared.

Zedda writes that the sensual duet between Uberto and Elena, one of Rossini’s prettiest dialogs of love, is full of passion because Rossini is free from any necessity to paint a direct encounter between lovers. In fact, this is a very unusual love duet because it is not between two lovers!

Malcolm makes his appearance. Just a reminder that Malcom is a trouser role sung by a mezzo. He is perhaps the most interesting figure in this opera. Zedda remarks that “his” vocalization has its roots in the tradition of the androgynous characters, he belongs to Romantic culture. His interpretive powers need to be enough to give emotion and presentiment to a cabaletta. Malcolm stands out for his natural sensitivity, and noble pride, and may be characterized as a negative hero, destined to give weight to Elena’s uncertainty and magnanimity to Giacomo’s renunciation.”

Here we have Malcolm’s entrance “Mura Felici” sung by Daniela Barcellona, who brings this role to the Met in the upcoming performances.

Douglas, Elena’s father, and Rodrigo whom her father insists she marry have not yet appeared. Their music tends to reinforce these not particularly sympathetic characters, and although they are instrumental to the plot, are not really central to it.

When Giacomo reappears looking for Elena he sings “Oh fiamma soave” which is “not only a manifesto of pure singing in which the refinements of belcanto virtuosity are translated into emotion, according to Zedda “but also a profession of sublime nobility, of intense sincerity.”

Here it is sung by Juan Diego Florez, the Met’s Uberto.

The confrontation with Elena – the confession of love, sets off a scene of beauty, nostalgia and foreboding. Rossini basically lets us know that the die is cast, even before Uberto offers Elena the ring that will secure her safety.

Musically, this seems to be the most critical scene in the opera, and somehow Rossini explains to us all the nature of Uberto’s magnanamous gestures.

This scene is splendidly sung by June Anderson and Rockwell Blake, in this production from La Scala:

This is a far cry from the clemency in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito or even Rossini’s own Aureliano in Palmyra. It is something deeper and more mysterious. Not exactly Romanticism, but certainly Rossini examining “the rule of the senses” as Maestro Zedda puts it.

Fast forward to the obligatory happy ending.

Douglas is pardoned and ushered off the stage without further musical comment. Rodrigo is no longer alive. Malcolm is pardoned by his King but there is no exchange between Elena and Malcolm.

This is where “Tanti Affetti” appears. Rognoni declares that with this aria, the opera falls into conventionalism. He has a point, because although this is the “show piece” of this work, one might get the feeling that Rossini wasn’t quite sure how to tie things up. Zedda has pointed out that this cavatina is resplendent with joy, a joy difficult to understand once Giacomo has left the stage ( in some productions he’s still on stage, but out of the action).

Furthermore, in looking to the text, Zedda points out that when Elena comes to the word “felicita” there is a suspension in the vocal part, a pause on the strong beat that sounds like an unnatural hesitation. The chorus in the meantime sings “avversita”, Zedda concludes by pointing out that the use of full orchestra AND the band during the cabaletta seems to be a way for Rossini to suggest to us that there is a double truth – the happy ending and the shadows the music casts on the text.

So, maybe those audiences of long ago wanted the band off the stage so they did not have to deal with this double truth?