The high reputation of Naxos' delectable series of recordings of Rossini operas continues with this new release of La donna del lago. While the quality of some of the performances on the other recordings can be disappointing (Ciro in Babilonia comes to mind), others (such as Joyce DiDonato in La Cenerentola) are as good as anything you'll find on one of the long-established main labels.
Many of the sets have featured conductor Alberto Zedda leading works of which he has an instinctive understanding. As evinced by the recent Opus Arte DVD of La pietra del paragone, Zedda has a grasp of both the stylistic issues facing those who perform Rossini and the inherent humour of the composer's scores, and he is the hero of this recording of La donna del lago. Like Maurizio Benini in the Opera Rara recording of the same piece (released last year; read the review here), Zedda uses the new Critical Edition of the score edited by H. Colin Slim, but whereas Benini has better singers and players at his disposal, Zedda crafts a much more insightful account of the score. There is much more nuance within the phrases which Zedda creates than those of Benini; even the rustic choruses flanking the opening scene and the basic calls of hunting horns have greater inflection and verve in Zedda's hands. Benini's account is certainly very lively and exciting, but to hear Zedda conduct this music is to behold a master at work.
Rossini's seventh opera for Naples is considered by some to signal the birth of Romantic opera. The choice of Sir Walter Scott's evocative The Lady of Lake for the plot was so successful that it sparked a series of other operas by Bellini, Donizetti and Bizet based on the same poet's works. The construction of the opera (as discussed in my review of the Opera Rara recording) is highly unusual in many places and paved a way for both the looser construction and greater emotional focus of mid-Romantic opera. However, the beauty of the score is its most important asset: listen to any of the arias for the heroine Elena or the trouser role of Malcolm and you'll find Rossini at his best.
I was intrigued to hear mezzo Sonia Ganassi in this recording because she is down to play Princess Eboli in the new production of Don Carlo at Covent Garden in June, though it is difficult to judge the suitability of her voice for Eboli on the basis of her performance as Elena because the roles are completely different from one another. I don't think she's captured at her best here; the voice is simply too heavy for the music Rossini provides for this enchanting character, and the patchy recording acoustic doesn't help. She does, however, have a strong dramatic instinct which comes into its own as the plot thickens, and this quality may prove her to be well-matched with Eboli's fiery music.
The rest of the cast is acceptable rather than distinguished: Maxim Mironov (Uberto), Marianna Pizzolato (Malcolm), Ferdinand von Bothmer (Rodrigo), Wojtek Gierlach (Douglas) and Olga Peretyatko (Albina) all contribute to the recording's theatrical flair but most of them have small technical flaws regarding either coloratura or intonation (or both) which must mark this recording out as a second choice either to the Opera Rara set or the earlier Sony release conducted by Maurizio Pollini.
Nevertheless, Zedda's conducting of the SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern makes this a highly-recommended budget-priced release.