La Donna del Lago, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2013

Two tenors love the same soprano — Elena, the Lady of the Lake — but she ends up with her beloved mezzo, Malcolm. The tenors, Uberto, really King James V of Scotland, and Highland Chieftain Rodrigo, are politically and militarily opposed, and though Elena’s father Duglas insists she marry Rodrigo, he is conveniently killed and the King reconciles the father with Malcolm at the end.

First tableau, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

First tableau, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

As Beethoven once said to Rossini, “Give us more Barbers”, and this interestingly nuanced Scottish story based on the narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott has never really held the stage. Yet it contains some wonderful vocal writing, and Covent Garden brought in the singers to do it full justice. All five principals had performed together before at La Scala (and four of them also in Paris) in a production that the Royal Opera abandoned in favour of doing their own, but more on that later.

From her early aria expressing love for Malcom, to her late realisation that her admirer Uberto is really the king, and her overwhelming gratitude to him for bringing her father and lover together, Joyce DiDonato showed exquisitely crafted emotion with effortless vocal flourishes. With Juan Diego Flores showing heartfelt emotion and huge nobility of character, the two of them provided a feast of vocal brilliance, and his long aria at the start of Act II, O fiamma soave where he expresses his love for Elena, brought the house down.

The other three principals were all making their debuts at Covent Garden. Italian mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcom gave a fine portrayal of a rough and ready young warrior, and her duet with Elena in Act I showed immense tenderness on both sides. Simón Orfila as Elena’s father Duglas showed great strength of tone, and Michael Spyres as her would-be fiancé, Rodrigo sang beautifully without apparently altering the vocal pitch at any point, covering the huge tessitura demanded by this role. His stage presence was excellent, and the trio with Elena and Uberto where the two tenors hurl high Cs at one another, was a vocal delight. At this point smartly dressed men with brollies appear from behind, and two gentlemen in top hats take down huge swords from the walls, bringing them to stage centre.

The king reveals it all

The king reveals all

That brings us to the production by in-house director John Fulljames, who seems to have followed Stalin’s (or was it Robespierre’s) dictum that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Some were good, some bad, but the over-riding purpose seems to have been to frame the whole thing as an old myth kitted out for performance at a Scottish gentlemen’s club. Elena started in a glass case, and Malcom and Duglas ended up in two other cases. In the meantime the director tried to add flashes of local colour with a gratuitous rape scene late in Act I, part of which looked like a version of the Eton Wall Game, and in the final scene when Uberto opens a screen to reveal the throne room, we see an Alice in Wonderland vision: a courtroom with musicians dressed in tartan, and male and female chorus dressed as nineteenth century male lawyers. A huge tartan screen drops to hide the dead bodies hanging behind.

Final tableau

Final tableau

For a little-known opera like this one needs a straightforward production rather than a too-clever-by-half adaptation, but go for the conducting by Michele Mariotti and the brilliant singing — you may never hear it done better.

Performances continue until June 11 — for details click here.

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