Okay, so I'm going a little nuts because last night's Met Opera Radio broadcast of Gioachino Rossini's "La Donna del Lago" (The Lady of the Lake) was my first live Joyce Didonato performance. I've read her blog, watched her master classes, and spent hours listening to her studio albums online, so that her art has become a kind of friend that I communicate with emotionally on a regular basis. Her voice is easy to listen to and, contrary to her personal belief, carries the most note-heavy music with the same ease as that of the object of her subtle envy, Cecilia Bartoli. Not to mention, Joyce's Rossini is awe-dern-some! She's vocally remastered every one of his operas that she's pulled out of his vault (created due to perceived excitelessness, drag- on factor, borefest-relation in the bulk of his work) among which is the surprisingly electric one (at least, in her hands) under discussion here.
It's All a Lot of Funned-Up Drama
That's "La Donna del Lago" in a very, very small nutshell. It started a now fame-famous trend in opera that had Italian composers everywhere ordering librettos based on works by Sir Walter Scott ("Lucia di Lammermoor," "Lucia di Lammermoor..." "Loo-chee-ah dee..." sorry, but I'm just a little obsessed. You get it, right? You get me? You've got Bel Canto bipolar, too?), and it began the rather short but great Era of Romantic Expression in Many, Many Notes during the early 1800s. Okay, so I've gone a little overboard by implying that Joyce is the only singer who's pulled a great performance of "Lago" out of a place where the sun never shines (I mean the vault... You and your slimy little minds...) but she's definitely the singer who's gotten the most attention for portraying the "Lady" of the title, Elena, of late. Elena exists in the muck of a political struggle in Scotland, and at the center of King James V's (Lawrence Brownlee... Lawrence friggin' Brownlee!) loving (lust, lust lust...) gaze. Her interest, however, is invested entirely in Malcom, whose character last night was spun by the rather saggy but emotive enough dramatic mezzo (I didn't hear contralto...) of Daniella Barcellona. After a revolution, a little tiff between tutor and student, James and Elena's father, Douglas, who has joined the Scottish rebels but was once admired by the king, and a big problem a la Rodrigo, to whom Elena's engaged and who leads the rebels, and we have ourselves a big party of congratulations! Yeah, it's as twisted as it sounds. Then again, you don't go to the opera because you think the story might be nice. A lot of composers from Rossini's time didn't compose music that went along with stories exactly, anyway. Rossini liked his stuff to be sweet, catchy, and very elaborately decorated. I'm talking high and low notes swung and twirled and slammed all over the place. Rossini's music doesn't give singers breaks, and his orchestral composition doesn't have quite the raw quality of Donizetti's nor the Zoloft-begging one of Bellini's, but is pretty carefully polished. If you've heard "The Barber of Seville," you've heard quite a few Rossini operas, comedic and dramatic. However, while he may not have composed the most emotional music on the planet, he definitely sticks with a listener with its constant toe-tapping rhythm and the kinds of tunes that make you wanna fling your hands all around and pretend you're a Russian conductor (Oh, is that just me?), and that's what counts, right?
Yeah, There Were Others...
But let's talk about the Didonato costar who really helped make the show a show, Lawrence Brownlee, the King James V of the modern century. I haven't thought to do an "Artist Apprezz" article on him until now, but I'm not sure when I'll get to it, so, if you haven't heard of him, he's definitely one whose vocal talents you NEED to hear. His tenor is like gold silk, smooth and shimmery in all but his lowest register, which has a dark mahogany quality about it. That's not to mention his incredible, incredible flexibility, which a singer needs if he's even thinking about attempting Rossini's music. On Friday, he was as nimble as the orchestra's winds, treating the brutal score like his personal playpin. His high notes! Oh, the high notes. The all-important, all-consuming, all-brightening high notes. I couldn't believe what was coming through my notebook speakers as he tossed his voice onto the ramp of a starship and let it fly. The highest stuff bloomed out of his throat like the broccoli crown of an atomic explosion over and over again. In the duets with Didonato he produced something sublime, the likes of which I haven't heard in a Metropolitan Opera tenor this entire season. He really is a throne hog.
The Best Stuff
I usually reserve a section of any review I write for the conductor, but I didn't feel Michele Mariotti the whole way through. The introduction prepared me very well for what was to come over two Acts, a little lagging, a little rushing, and some awkward tone changes. I guess I can't blame the one guy for that, though. The instrumentalists had to play what he directed, after all. During DiDonato's scenes, however, he seemed to get a grip on what he was doing. I guess she's just magical that way, which brings me to the stuff I loved most about the performance, the duets between James and Elena and Elena's solos. I don't know what she's doing to keep her voice in shape, but Joyce is amazing at it. A rare quantity among opera singers, she possesses a mezzo voice that she can stretch over an octave and a half or so of the soprano range. Elena's role is written for a soprano, but it couldn't have sounded more interesting, more penetrating (my speakers blared with each of her very highest notes), and more derned even than it would have sounded in, say, soprano Aida Garifullina's throat? Joyce's voice is as colorful as she is, herself, and there's no question in my mind that her ability to bring out shades in her roles that her fans don't know are there until she shows them is what makes her one of the best mezzo sopranos of the Twenty-First Century. I think I'm going to have to start a collection of her complete opera recordings very soon. My thanks to her and to Lawrence Brownlee for a truly memorable Met Opera evening.
Some of the best operas out there weren't thought to be among the best until the right performers showed up to prove them so. Having never before heard "La Donna Del Lago" in my life, I'm happy that my introduction to it happened to be one of the most exciting personal opera-listener firsts of the comedic Bel Canto persuasion that I've had since Carlo Maria Giulini's and Maria Callas's "Il Turco in Italia." The Met has started growing on me again.