NEW YORK—Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poems have faded in popularity, but he inspired movies (such as “Ivanhoe” and “Quentin Durward” in the 1950s) and enduring musical works, notably Donizetti’s “Lucia de Lammermoor.” His narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake” was adapted into a bel canto opera by Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) that was a hit for a time, but sank into obscurity.
Last season, almost 200 years after its debut in Naples, “La Donna del Lago” was revived at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera is quite melodic and challenging since the score was written for the leading virtuosos of the opera scene in the early 19th century.
The Met supplied the requisite vocal talent last season and does so again in this revival with the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returning to the title role. She is partnered by another of the world’s leading bel canto singers, tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
Set in the Scottish Highlands during the 16th century, the title character is Elena, an irresistible beauty. There’s a civil war going on but Giacomo (King James), posing as a hunter named Uberto, walks alone into enemy territory. He meets Elena and immediately falls in love. Unfortunately, the king has considerable competition.
Elena’s father, Duglas d’Angus (a member of the Highland Clan that wants to dethrone the king but also happens to be the ruler’s former tutor) orders her to marry the rebel leader Rodrigo di Dhu. However, she is enamored of another local suitor, Malcolm Groeme.
The war escalates but nevertheless Giacomo returns, to be rejected once again by Elena. He gives her a ring that he says comes from the king and will protect her from the royal army. Rodrigo overhears the conversation and orders his men to kill the stranger. However, Elena convinces the highlanders to spare Giacomo.
The king’s forces prevail in battle, killing Rodrigo and capturing Duglas. Elena goes to the castle to plead for his release as well as that of Malcolm, who she believes has also been taken by the enemy. Actually, Malcolm is not a prisoner but learns of Elena’s whereabouts and goes after her.
Displaying the ring secures Elena’s entry into the castle, and she is shocked to discover that the lovelorn hunter Uberto is the king. The good-natured monarch pardons Duglas and Malcolm, and allows Elena to marry the man of her choice.
Paul Curran’s production is mostly dark (until the last scene) and has the singers mostly stand and deliver. Nevertheless, DiDonato not only sings beautifully but acts with feeling. She starts the first act with the lovely “O mattutini albori” and ends the opera with trills galore in “Tanti affetti.” At that point in the opera Elena is supposed to be happy, and DiDonato looks radiant and sounds fantastic even though this long, tricky solo is at the end of a three-hour opera.
As Giacomo, Brownlee’s singing further establishes him as one of the finest tenors of our time.
The rebel leader Rodrigo is another role for a tenor, and John Osborn matches Brownlee in knocking out high notes even though he can’t match him in smoothness of projection. There are vocal fireworks when the tenors cross swords and exchange high C’s.
At first blush, Elena’s love interest seems to be a woman in a skirt, but according to the script is a man in a kilt. Malcolm is played by mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who also sang with style. It was lucky for Giacomo and Rodrigo that they didn’t have to fight Malcolm because the mezzo towered over both of them.
Bass Oren Gradus was rather blustery as Duglas.
The Met chorus and orchestra, conducted by Michele Mariotti, performed admirably.
The sets and costumes by Kevin Knight probably won’t inspire anyone to travel to Scotland. It’s pretty bleak until the last scene, set in the glittering castle.
If you like bel canto, then you won’t want to miss DiDonato and Brownlee in “La Donna del Lago.”
The opera runs intermittently through Dec. 26 at the Metropolitan Opera; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.