Rossini’s Donna del lago in Lausanne

Rossini’s Donna del lago contains some fine bel canto music but, notwithstanding its basis in Walter Scott’s poem, has a creaking plot and a prosaic, inconsequential libretto. Understandably, stage directors have been tempted to read it into its story of a young woman crushed between the ardours of a disguised king, a suitor imposed on her by a tyrannical father and her own worthy lover a subtext which gives coherence and meaning to the piece. The production at Lausanne by Max Emanuel Cencic, the well-known counter tenor who has recently turned his hand to direction, began impressively with the heroine who was reading a Scott’volume observing a painting of a 19th century social gathering; and then she entered inside its frame, in order to experience what life could offer. The conclusion was even more striking – easily the best fifteen minutes of the evening. After coming through her trials and tribulations and allowed to celebrate the union with her lover, she was again outside the painting reading Scott, but her great aria of happiness Tanti affetti in tal momento was sung with irony rather than conviction, and we could see that her life had become constricted by a dull and conventional marriage.

Cencic’s decision to underpin the work with a Freudian interpretation was ostensibly a very good one, but between the highlights of prologue and epilogue, the production suffered from a serious problem of overload. The stage and a video back drop were crammed with images: cluttered Victoriana; romantic Scotland with mountains and waterfalls; Freudian symbols of stag heads, infantile eroticism, and half naked ladies of pleasure, to mention but some of them. These, combined with an incessant shuffling around the stage and physical contortions of the chorus and extras, were hugely distracting and the music inevitably suffered. Most damaging of all to the director’s project was the fact that the nature of the heroine’s trauma in confronting the forces and challenges of society did not emerge with sufficient clarity.

A pity because Lena Belkina who appeared thus fazed by the demands made of her dramatically was vocally an assured Elena. Indeed, the soloists had been well selected for a work which requires expertise in negotiating the coloratura passages and, particularly for the tenors, some regular leaps high above the stave. Juan Francisco Gatell is a specialist in this repertory and, as an extrovert Rodrigo, Elena’s chosen suitor, performed the required acrobatic lunges with bravura.  Daniel Behle might not have the same degree of experience in the Rossinian idiom but, to communicate the variety of emotions experienced by the disguised King James, he shifted interestingly between falsetto and full-voiced outbursts. Daniel Golossov was the confidently sonorous father. The novelty in the casting was that of Max Emanuel Cencic as Elena’s lover Malcom. One is familiar with the interchange of mezzos and counter tenors with male roles in baroque opera; much less so for bel canto works. I confess that I missed the richer sound of the female lower register but in other respects, this was a winning performance, Cencic’s brilliant phrasing and masculinity of appearance and demeanour getting to the heart of the character. In the pit, George Petrou and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra provided a poised, sensitive accompaniment.