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8.660235-36 - ROSSINI: Donna del lago (La)
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Melodramma in Two Acts
Elena - Sonia Ganassi, Mezzo-soprano
Prague Chamber Choir (Chorus master: Adolf Melichar)
La donna del lago is a beautiful, seductive and mysterious opera, one of the greatest works of a composer to whom mediocrity was an unknown concept. It is threaded through with the kind of proto-Romantic pulsations beloved of the Sturm und Drang movement, and is enriched by passions that rise above the commonplace. It lays bare an extraordinary range of emotions, all portrayed and experienced figuratively, metaphorically. The opera is brimming with passion, yet the expected love scene never takes place; it is steeped in bellicosity, yet beneath the war-mongering lie jealousy and mental torment; it contains moments of great tenderness, yet its eroticism is never fulfilled and is always veiled in melancholy. Friendship, family ties, and a pantheistic relationship with nature conceal profound anxieties and existential concerns. Sorrow and death appear with dreamlike detachment. What prevails is a lack of communication, the characters' inability to understand themselves and each other, to see the true meaning of their emotions, and to command their impulses. Once again Rossini creates an opera which in its formal structure, its use of closed pieces, its means of expression, its semantics, and its vocal selection seems initially similar to so many of his others, but which once heard, reveals instead an unknown landscape and thematic innovation. La donna del lago's disappearance from the repertoire can only be explained as part of the generalised dismissal of the composer's stage works during the Romantic and verismo years. It is not an easy piece to revive today either, filled as it is with ambiguity, abstraction and metaphor. The inextricable link drawn between past and future makes the task of interpreting the opera's emotions particularly difficult, just as it was for his contemporaries, whose early enthusiastic acclaim faded into indifference within little more than a decade.
In addition to the customary Rossinian gems, the orchestration also features a number of original touches, such as the sustained use of hunting horns on- and off-stage (pre-Freischütz and Euryanthe!); the significant part played by the stage band, which serves the plot in the large-scale ensemble sections and elsewhere; the use of the harp to evoke a sense of the archaic and of now-vanished traditional instruments in its accompaniment of the Ossianic chorus; the unusual grouping (four clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and harp) employed for Uberto's off-stage love song, which contrasts with the band's appearance in Ellen's final rondo. All this helps create an orchestral colour which in itself would be enough to distinguish this opera from the other masterpieces that emerged from the composer's extraordinarily fruitful years in Naples.
Ambitious in its Ossianic references, above and beyond the original Walter Scott, the libretto depicts a cast of somewhat elusory characters, with understated emotions and reactions. Rossini's music, however, breathes life into them, bringing them into sharp relief.
The traditional overture is here rejected in favour of a simple eight-bar cadence – dominant / tonic – which, after a symmetrical repeat, leads straight into the story and lets us know that even as he prepares the ground for his plot, Rossini is not about to disavow his uniquely personal idiom and ideology. Three unison notes in the strings and three tutti chords, slowly articulated above the steps of the perfect cadence, instantly conjure up arcane resonances and the silence and stillness of the forest. This Pan-like sense of nature permeates the work as a whole, affecting the protagonists' actions and conferring on them a mythical sense of detachment.
As Act I opens, Giacomo (James V of Scotland), whose desire to defend his throne against the threat posed by rebel princes does not prevent him from pursuing his dreams, has supposedly lost his way in the forest while chasing after a hind. In truth he has shaken off the rest of his hunting party in order to go alone to the lakeside, where rumour has it that every morning at daybreak a lovely young woman appears. He spies the girl, and is captivated by her extraordinary beauty. Lost in thoughts of Malcolm, the man she loves, Elena (Ellen) sings a simple, enchanting canzonetta, "Oh mattutini albori" (O early morning light). Very different from the triumphalism of many a diva's entrance, this nonetheless has a subtle, intangible erotic charge. Without revealing his true identity to her, James asks for help in finding his way. Ellen, in all innocence, ferries him across the lake to her home, where she treats him as an honoured guest. Their conversation is quiet and polite, their behaviour chaste and amicable, but Rossini's music invests this encounter with such tension and soft enchantment that it comes as no surprise that James begins to burn with an overpowering love. From the escutcheons that adorn the walls and arms inside her home, however, he realises he is within enemy walls: Ellen is in fact the daughter of Douglas, once his trusted tutor, now chief of the rebel factions. He learns from her friends that the young woman is betrothed to a certain Rodrigo (Roderick Dhu), chosen not by her but by her father, for political reasons. James knows he must flee, but the tenderness his presence has awoken in the young woman leaves him room to hope. Ellen meanwhile attributes her feelings of confusion to the fact that she is missing Malcolm and, in a passage full of ambiguity, unwittingly initiates a fatal seduction. The duet that ends the scene is one of Rossini's most beautiful, and certainly his most sensual and passionate. As Ellen is thinking of Malcolm and not James, Rossini is able to give freer rein to the emotions in this indirect love scene.
Malcolm himself then arrives, a young warrior who out of love for Ellen rather than political conviction has betrayed his king and deserted to join the rebels and thus be close to his beloved. In his opening aria, "Mura felici" (Happy walls), steeped in a melancholy which his lovesick yearning fails to mask, he sings of the spell that has bewitched him. His youthful enthusiasm invites a sympathy that also hints at an unhappy ending. Although his aria stems from the tradition of androgenous characters linked to the castrato voice, Malcolm is a Romantic figure. The rôle requires sufficient bravura to bring emotional truth and presages of doom to a cabaletta characterised by a melodic theme that might otherwise stray into the realms of banality. Malcolm displays an unaffected sensitivity, nobility and pride, and takes shape as a kind of negative hero, destined to give depth to Ellen's uncertainty and magnanimity to James's eventual renunciation of her.
Douglas's entry is the signal for the time-honoured clash between love and duty, the heart and self-interest. Ellen must sacrifice herself to political reality: she agrees to marry Roderick, but he will come to realise that he has not won her heart, which lies with Malcolm. This dramatic encounter, the focal point of the lengthy Act I finale, is cut short by the call to arms.
The tender little duet that follows Douglas's exit is suffused with sadness. Particularly noteworthy is the very different, though equally bewitching tone which Ellen adopts for Malcolm, compared with that of her duet with James. Malcolm, meanwhile, tempers the heroic strains of the breeches part with the sincere lyricism of the lover.
With the arrival of Roderick, the last pawn in this game, the finale really begins to gather pace. His singlemindedness and unclouded loyalty introduce a note of clarity that stands in contrast to the general emotional confusion depicted thus far. The male chorus also reappears at this point, having played a key part in creating a psychological portrait of the forest environment at the start of the act. In a masterly touch, the rebel clans enter in successive waves, accompanied by band and drums, bringing the act to a highly dramatic end, although not before a momentary pause in the action as the bards sing a chorus urging the warriors on to victory (in a convention that Bellini would later use in Norma).
In Act II, James, disguised as Hubert of Snowdon, returns in search of Ellen and reveals his love to her in the aria "Oh fiamma soave" (O gentle flame). This, as well as being an incredible vocal display in which the subtleties of bel canto virtuosity bring out every emotional nuance, is a noble and sincere profession of love. Now James-Hubert becomes the prototype of the Romantic hero: like Werther he renounces his own happiness to protect that of his beloved, though despairing at his loss. Ellen is discomfited by his confession, unaware that her behaviour, which he now recalls with a mixture of reproval and longing, was responsible for arousing his passion. As he prepares to go, Ellen, against all logic, confusedly asks him, "Ten vai…?" (You are leaving…?)
Roderick surprises them together and the encounter between the two men, now rivals in love as well as war, can only end in tragedy. Trying to stop the ensuing duel, conducted to the sound of high Cs, Ellen cries out, "Io son la misera che morte attende" (I am the wretch who awaits death). The intensity and inspiration behind this line betray an emotional involvement that could never be felt for a stranger, as Hubert supposedly is, or a man who threatens her happiness, as Roderick does. This trio is not only the crowning moment of this work, but a high point in the history of Rossinian, indeed all opera.
Roderick dies, the first victim of a creature whose unfathomable feminine charms appear to be inseparable from an inauspicious fate. The following aria for Malcolm foretells the downfall of her second suitor, who is about to join battle in vain to try and rescue her; he ends up being taken prisoner, along with Douglas. When in the second-act finale Ellen, taking Hubert's advice, turns to a king she believes she does not know to beg for the lives of her father and Malcolm, the obligatory happy ending conceals a different truth. Douglas, once freed, is given no words of understanding: the conservative Rossini devotes not a single note to this father/leader, and removes him from the scene with complete indifference. Malcolm receives from the king the esteem that his good faith deserves, but not a word from Ellen, who for her part sings a joyful cavatina which after James's exit is hard to understand. On the word "felicità" (happiness), Rossini calls for a suspension, a pause on the downbeat that seems to create an unnatural hesitation. The impression given is that just as she utters the magic word which will seal her future, Ellen has the premonition that her happiness has vanished for ever with Hubert. By chance, the word that Rossini has the chorus sing as Ellen sings "felicità" is "avversità" (adversity). And there is one further warning sign: the unexpected presence of the stage band in the cabaletta. With a double piano – for the orchestra and for the band – Rossini would appear to be inviting us to discern a dual truth: that suggested by the happy ending, and that hinted at by a score that casts a shadow over the bright words of the text.
The plot of La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake) is set in sixteenth-century Scotland, where the Highlanders are in revolt against King James V (Giacomo V), led by Douglas, the father of Ellen (Elena), the Lady of the Lake.
[CD 1 / Track 1] The scene shows the ridge of Benledi and a wooded hillside leading down to the glen, in the centre of which lies Loch Katrine. Shepherds and shepherdesses welcome the dawn, echoed by huntsmen in the woods above.
[1/2] Ellen is seen, in her boat on the loch, singing of her lover, Malcolm, who may perhaps be among the huntsmen.
[1/3] A horn sounds nearby, its sound echoed in the distance. Ellen thinks that now Malcolm may be near. She reaches the bank, disembarks and moors the boat, observed by the King, disguised as Hubert (Uberto), who is struck by her beauty. Seeing him, Ellen asks who he is and Hubert tells her that he has become separated from his companions in the hunt and has lost his way. She offers him shelter in her hut on the other side of the loch.
[1/4] Ellen tells him to embark and sit by her in the boat, refusing his thanks for what is natural Scottish hospitality.
[1/5] Huntsmen are heard calling for Hubert, before dispersing in various directions to pursue their search.
[1/6] The scene changes to Douglas's lodge. Ellen welcomes Hubert to her humble dwelling, impressing him with her virtue, simplicity and beauty, but he suddenly realises, from the arms he sees hanging on the walls, that he may be in danger. Ellen tells him that her father is the famous Douglas, exiled from the court. She asks why he is so pensive, as her companions are heard approaching.
[1/7] Ellen's friends remind her of the love Roderick Dhu (Rodrigo) bears towards her, arousing the jealousy of Hubert and Ellen's secret misgivings.
[1/8] Hubert asks Ellen if she is already betrothed to Roderick, suspecting that she loves another.
[1/9] Hubert thinks that she may love him, but Ellen's affections are otherwise engaged.
[1/10] He is given a cup of welcome and entertains thoughts of love, while Ellen has her own thoughts. She bids Hubert farewell, retiring to her own room, while the attendants escort Hubert to his.
[1/11] Malcolm enters, musing on his love and the walls that shelter his beloved.
[1/12] He addresses Ellen, begging her to turn to him and tell him she loves him, ready to die for her or welcome death if he is without her.
[1/13] He has shed tears languishing far from her eyes, with everything else detestable to him.
[1/14] A retainer ushers in Douglas and Ellen, the former delighted to hear that Roderick is approaching, his daughter's promised betrothed, champion of Douglas's cause. Ellen demurs at talk of marriage in a time of war, while Malcolm, aside, expresses his misgivings.
[1/15] Douglas is displeased and tells her that she must show herself worthy of her father and obey him. Distant trumpets are heard, announcing the approach of Roderick, to whom she must give her heart. He leaves, prepared for battle.
[1/16] Ellen is divided in her own heart between duty to her father and love for Malcolm. He has overheard what has been said, and comes forward, telling her that he too has been called to join the conflict.
[1/17] The lovers pledge their loyalty, either to be joined together or to die.
[1/18] The scene changes to an open space, surrounded by mountains, with the loch visible in the distance. Roderick comes forward, amid his warrior clansmen, who praise his valour. Roderick is triumphant.
[1/19] He wants to see his beloved, ready to fight with renewed courage at her sight.
[1/20] His companions assure him that love smiles on him.
[1/21] Douglas appears, embracing Roderick and assuring him of victory over the King. He tells Roderick that Ellen will soon be with him, as she approaches.
[1/22] The people praise Ellen's beauty.
[2/1] Roderick cannot find words to express his love, but Ellen is silent, looking down, attributed by her father to her maiden modesty. Ellen finds it difficult to hide her true feelings, while Douglas rebukes her for disloyalty, and Roderick wonders at the reason for her sighs.
[2/2] Malcolm appears, with his followers, ready to join the Highlanders' cause, while Douglas realises that Malcolm is the one she loves.
[2/3] Roderick welcomes Malcolm, but refers to Ellen as his consort. Malcolm impulsively leaps forward, denying such a possibility and restrained by Ellen.
[2/4] Roderick now understands the situation, filled with anger, as is Douglas, while Ellen and Malcolm express their own feelings.
[2/5] Douglas's retainer Serano hurries in, followed by bards, announcing the approach of the enemy. Douglas, Roderick and Malcolm realise it is time to put aside private grievances, vowing to conquer or to die.
[2/6] A captain raises on high the great shield of Tremmor, which he strikes, and the warriors follow, striking their shields. The bards sing their encouragement, while the women prophesy victory. A meteor is seen in the sky, greeted by Roderick and Douglas as a sign of coming triumph.
[2/7] The three chieftains call on their men to fight the oppressor. The women retire and the men march off to battle.
[2/8] The scene is a wooded glade, by a cave. Hubert expresses his love for Ellen, whom he wants to see again.
[2/9] Ellen and Serano come from the cave. As the latter leaves, Hubert comes forward, and Ellen asks him what he wants from her. He declares his love for her.
[2/10] Ellen tells him she knew nothing of his love, which he still pleads.
[2/11] She begs him not to be cruel, and he gives way, respecting her true affections. As a token of his constancy he gives a ring, which he puts on her finger, and which, if she has need, she must show to the King, from whom he claims he had it, when he saved the King's life; the King will then grant her what she wishes.
[2/12] They express their varied feelings, observed by Roderick, consumed with jealousy.
[2/13] Roderick comes forward, challenging Hubert, who declares himself a friend of the King, with no fear of the King's enemies. At a shout Roderick's clansmen appear. He orders them to take Hubert prisoner, but the latter instead calls for a sword to settle matters in combat, to the distress of Ellen, who calls on them to desist. The two men leave, followed by Ellen and the clansmen.
[2/14] In the cavern Ellen's confidante, Albina, is anxious over the events that have taken place. She is joined by Malcolm, who is looking for Ellen. He tells her of Roderick's combat with an unknown champion; he has come to protect Ellen or die in the attempt. Serano appears, but without Ellen, whom he has been told by Douglas to defend, as Douglas himself seeks to placate the King's anger by his own death. He had given Ellen her father's message, and she, in her distress, had set out to see the King.
[2/15] Malcolm too sees death as the answer to his troubles, if he has lost his beloved Ellen.
[2/16] The voices of Highlanders are heard telling Douglas to save himself. The clansmen appear with news of the death of Roderick and the victory of the King, to general consternation. Malcolm rushes off, with the clansmen.
[2/17] In the royal palace at Stirling Ellen, who had been born there and can only associate the place with misfortune, comes to ask the King to spare her father, Malcolm and Roderick.
[2/18] The voice of the King is heard singing, remembering Ellen, who is enchanted by what she hears.
[2/19] She recognises the voice of Hubert, and when he appears she reminds him of the ring he had given her. He asks what she desires.
[2/20] The doors of the chamber are opened to reveal the royal throne-room. The people sing his praise.
[2/21] Ellen tries to see the King, among the courtiers, and is amazed when she finds that her Hubert is King James, who pardons Douglas and restores his title as Lord Bothwell. He tells Ellen that Roderick is dead. When Malcolm is brought in, the King seems about to punish him, but instead rewards him with the hand of Ellen. He asks her what else she wants.
[2/22] Ellen is overwhelmed with gratitude.
[2/23] She is happy at last to see her father and her lover at peace together, unhoped for happiness.
The Italian libretto and booklet note may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660187.htm
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