While the Metropolitan Opera keeps rotating productions of Rossini’s crowd-pleasing comedies “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “L’Italiana in Algieri” and “La Cenerentola” in its repertoire, the company has tended to ignore the composer’s more serious works. New York City Opera has ridden to the rescue of late, first with an impressive mounting of Rossini’s “Ermione” in 2004 and now with “La Donna del Lago,” based on Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem “The Lady of the Lake.” A cast of some of today’s top young Rossini singers has been assembled for the work’s first major New York staging in well over a century. Though the production does little to enhance or even reflect the magnificent score, the vocal talent onstage is electrifying.
This new generation of bel canto singers may not boast the sheer tonal beauty of Sutherland, Pavarotti and Horne, but the athletic vocalism and intensely committed performances on display here make for a thrilling three hours in the theater. The cast’s efforts are hampered, unfortunately, by the ugly set and silly costumes of David Zinn, but director Chas Rader-Shieber wisely keeps his singers front and center most of the time, the better for them to dazzle the audience with their virtuosity.
Rossini’s 1819 opera came early in a craze for all things Scottish, which swept Italy during the first half of the 19th century. This was the first of many Italian operas to be based on Scott’s novels and poems, including Pacini’s “Ivanhoe” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Scott’s tale of the daughter of a Highland chieftain, caught between warring factions and forced by her father to marry the man she doesn’t love, was ideal operatic material for the young Rossini. Not only did it inspire him to write thrilling martial choruses and Scottish rhythms; it also allowed him to depict the atmospheric beauty of the highlands in the early scenes of his score.
Little of this has found its way into NYCO’s production (staged with Minnesota Opera). Zinn’s stark unit set consists largely of jagged, bare, gray-brick walls, with the addition of some chairs in act one and a huge dead tree trunk for act two. Zinn’s nonsensical costumes smack of the Civil War era, reaching an apogee of silliness with the chorus of soldiers, who wear Union caps and jackets on top with kilts below. A lot of fake snow falls throughout this production, particularly during some of the quieter orchestral interludes, and whatever it’s made of does not cause it to hit the stage silently. In fact, it sounds about as loud as a Vegas jackpot.
In the role of Elena, Alexandrina Pendatchanska brings a welcome gutsiness to a part that could easily be played as a victim. Though she had trouble on opening night projecting her lower middle register, her piping top notes and firm chest tones were thrilling, and her negotiation of the intricate staccato runs exquisite.
As Malcolm, young mezzo Laura Vlasak Nolen proves herself more than ready to take on Rossini’s difficult trouser roles. She will be even better once she’s able to tame her rapid tremolo. Playing romantic rivals, Barry Banks and debut artist Robert McPherson engage in a hair-raising, stratospheric tenorial duel. Neither scores points for vocal beauty, though Banks has the edge in elegance. McPherson wields his big, rangy sound to exciting effect. As Elena’s father Duglas, bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs is a commanding presence, oozing powerful, flowing low tones.
City Opera music director George Manahan does an expert job conducting Rossini’s rousing score. It’s almost enough to make you forget the wrongheaded production.