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The Lady of the Lake by Howard Chandler Christy (1910)
16 Apr 2007

City Opera Presents La Donna del Lago

The New York City Opera continued its tradition of championing works that are less frequently performed with this season’s production of La Donna del Lago.

Above: The Lady of the Lake by Howard Chandler Christy (1910)


Although the New York Times regarded the straight-forward plot as purely conventional we experienced the adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake as somewhat unusual opera seria largely because the ending was happy, the king did not get the girl, and the only death occurred off-stage. Briefly, the plot consists of three men who each love Elena (the title character): Rodrigo, who has been promised her hand in marriage by her father; Uberto, the king of Scotland in disguise (a surprise to us all at the very end); and Malcolm, a handsome young man with few credentials to recommend him to her father other than the deep love he and Elena share.

La Donna has grown in popularity lately due to the diligence of musicologist Philip Gossett, who worked with Marilyn Horne in reviving Semiramide. La Donna also has a pants role—Elena’s young lover Malcolm is cast as a mezzo-soprano—and like Semiramide, it is the soprano/mezzo-soprano love duets that offer the most musically sensual moments.

Laura Vlasak Nolen as Malcolm stirred what was otherwise a somewhat sleepy matinee audience on Saturday, March 24, rousing them to cheers with her first-act aria, an electric out-pouring of love for the absent Elena. Nolen’s duets with Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elena were also cause for much applause.

Pendatchanska’s voice and training were well-suited to the bel canto role of Elena, but she was at times hard to hear, possibly because the orchestra was overpowering her extremely florid and delicate sound. The two high tenors, characteristic of Rossini but a rare find nowadays, were also impressive. Robert MacPherson as Rodrigo was a very commanding presence, if somewhat inconsistent; we particularly were impressed with his energy in his first aria. The role of Uberto was ably filled by tenor Barry Banks who has a close performing relationship with Pendatchanska. Elena’s controlling father Douglas was performed by Daniel Mobbs.

The orchestra also performed admirably. The musicians handled the challenges of Rossini well, keeping the scales clean and the touch light. The woodwinds are to be especially commended for their solos in the overture. Too, offstage horns heralding the onset of war created some of the greatest spatial effects of the opera.

The set and costumes were designed by David Zinn, who characteristically employed lots of brick in his set design. The overall feeling was somewhat claustrophobic, especially in the scene inside Elena’s home where the wings moved inward and the towering walls reached the fly. Still, you must admire the man who tries to portray a lake with a wall of bricks. The uncomfortable effect was heightened by the presence of numerous stiff-looking chairs that were toted about the stage by stern women dressed in black. One other moment was particularly unfortunate in large part because of the set and staging: although the first duet of the opera was well-sung and dramatically acted, the mood was ruined by laughter elicited from the audience when Elena and her suitor Uberto exited the stage in a boat that was ostensibly carrying them across the lake.

Overall, City Opera’s production of La Donna had an emotional impact that was greater then the sum of its parts. While the audience seemed somewhat disinterested, we found the singers strong and Rossini’s music beautiful. A unique work in the canon, we are truly appreciative of the effort given on all fronts to put on this gem.

Sarah Gerk
Megan Jenkins

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