Once again, the specialist operatic recording label Opera Rara has struck gold with its latest release, Rossini's La donna del lago.
Recorded at last year's Edinburgh Festival, the quality and technical security of the performance belies its origin in a single live concert. The singers, orchestra and conductor are all exceptionally refined. And although it is not quite as historically significant a release as last month's Dom Sébastien because there are already recordings of La donna del lago in the catalogue, the singing is perhaps a shade more secure, while the conducting is ideally idiomatic and the sound quality is exceptionally clear. And it is the first recording to use the critical edition of the score prepared by H. Colin Slim, making it of great interest to scholars.
La donna del lago was the seventh of the nine operas that Rossini wrote for Naples between 1815 and 1822 and is based on Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake. Indeed, it was the first Italian opera to be based on one of Scott's works, igniting a series of pieces by seminal opera composers inspired by his poems including Bellini (I Puritani), Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor) and Bizet (La jolie fille de Perth, which is to be performed by Chelsea Opera Group in June 2007). Rossini would later write further Scott-inspired operas, Robert Bruce and Ivanhoe, but La donna del lago is by far the most emotionally engaging.
Responding to the heady romance of Scott's poetry, Rossini created a sound-world that at times seems to point towards his late style, particularly that of William Tell. The orchestration is evocative of the Scottish landscape on which the story takes place, with lightly pulsing hunting horns, onstage trumpets, full chorus and an unusually bold use of woodwinds taking us miles away from the composer's better known (though, of course, utterly delectable) comedies, Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. And the Introduction to the opera is unusually complex, taking up the whole of the opening scene with choruses at either end, Elena's cavatina and her duet with Uberto.
But my main motivation for listening to this recording several times already is the first act finale, which is one of the most breathtaking and complex set pieces in nineteenth-century opera. Rossini goes far beyond the conventional tripartite (three-part) procedure for a finale - andante (medium-speed introduction to set the scene), largo concertante (large, slow, lyric movement to express the divergent sentiments of all the characters) and stretta (very fast final movement to close the act with speedy impact) - and instead packs it with a long chain of movements of contrasting speeds.
Thus we experience a martial chorus with onstage band, a trio, various pieces of scena (plot-propelling recitative), an extraordinary concertato with a prominent solo part for a harp, and a stretta that combines two distinct choruses against each other with a full orchestra and onstage brass instruments. The effect is completely mesmerising and renders this as one of Rossini's most supreme operas.
Thankfully, this recording has a cast to match. Patricia Bardon leads the way in the trouser role of Malcolm, her nimble coloratura utterly impeccable in Rossini's demanding embellished vocal lines. As Elena, Carmen Giannattasio, too, is magnificent, opening the opera with confidence in her famous aria. Gregory Kunde tosses off the high notes with ease in the role of Rodrigo, and if Kenneth Tarver can sound a touch strained as a result of the wide tessitura of the part, his hefty approach is highly appropriate to the character of Giacomo V (King James of Scotland). However, the stand-out performance for me is the Douglas of Robert Gleadow. This Royal Opera Young Artist continues to exceed all expectations of a singer at the start of his career, and he takes this small but crucial part by the scruff of its neck, singing his aria (which, incidentally, was written not by Rossini but an anonymous collaborator, who also wrote most of the accompanied recitatives in the work) with awe-inspiring attack.
Yet the person who really deserves the credit for the success of this recording is the conductor, Maurizio Benini. As he has frequently shown in performances of Italian opera at Covent Garden, Benini has a natural instinct for the style of music of this period, and both his tempo choices and his ability to mould the drama through the music are exemplary. He draws vital, visceral playing from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, while the Edinburgh Festival Chorus could scarcely sing more lustily if they tried.
In all, this is a recording that deserves a place on the shelves of all who appreciate nineteenth-century Italian opera, and it easily supersedes the previous studio recordings conducted by Maurizio Pollini and Riccardo Muti.