La donna del lago is only rarely performed and so there is unlikely to be a "standard" version in the minds eye that we can compare a new production to, particularly one which attempts a lot of regie as this production by John Fulljames does. Here's my account of what I saw. The opera opens with Elena ("the lady of the lake") as a beautiful museum piece in a flapping gossamer shawl, a legendary figure, literally in a glass case as a group of society gents peer at her. In the background, painted on to the oak panelling, is a kitsch, idealised version of the Scottish landscape - these 19th century gentlemen have captured nature, rendering it benign, decorative, tamed. They let her out and she begins to sing - so we're seeing them indulging in a spot of idealised history, after having conquered the Scots. It turns out that these men are representatives of the invading king, who meets Elena and is captivated by her beauty. Though she flirts with this Monarch (Uberto) without realising that he is the king, Elena actually loves Malcolm (a highlander, mezzo trouser role) and they proclaim their love for each other (there's a wonderful duet for the two mezzos here). However this is a love quadrangle: she's betrothed to Rodrigo, the violent, rapist leader of the highlanders. After much arguing over who will get Elena (I'm simplifying things), Rodrigo is killed in battle which the invading posh gents win, and finally the king realises that Elena will never love him and shows clemency to the rebel Malcolm, allowing him and Elena to wed. Except, now tamed, controlled, they are all turned into museum pieces and Elena and the others are returned to their glass cases.
Except that this is all wrong. This interpretation is very different to what the production designers intended, and I know this because the official explanation for this production exists on youtube. The concept is so complicated and in my opinion not clearly enough realised on stage that if you hadn't watched the video before hand (as I hadn't - I just watched it after writing my account above) I think it would be a very tall order to get it all. Their newly constructed narrative is based on the idea of historical periods being reinterpreted to fit the exigencies of present political situations - but you have to know some very specific information about some obscure organisations of Rossini's/Walter Scott's time (two characters are dressed as these men apparently, which explains their strange observing behaviour) to interpret it "correctly". Much as I encourage radical reimaginings of operas when done well, this sort of focus on extremely specific historical situation is for me not what good theatre is about, though some will no doubt lap it up. Visually I'd say the design was quite strong, the sets by Dick Bird nicely atmospheric whilst remaining simple, the lighting good and the costumes effective. There are some beautiful effects - the first time Elena is revealed in her glass case for instance, and also the shadows cast on her castle as it rotates the first time we see it - but these are purely aesthetic matters that don't add to our understanding of the piece.
Great singing is the thing in this production, but actually the "stars" are largely outshone by their less famous colleagues. Daniela Barcellona in the trouser role of Malcom is simply superb - the voice is quite large, the coloratura brilliantly executed, the chest register extremely rich and well developed, and her commitment to using Rossini's music to express emotion unsurpassed by the rest of the cast. The top is a bit strident and unblended, but this was exciting singing. Physically her portrait of a swarthy highlander is absolutely extraordinary - you never doubt for a second that you are seeing a powerfully masculine lone ranger in front of you. Also magnificent is Michael Spyres, brought in last minute to cover the "baddie role" of Rodrigo after an ailing Colin Lee was forced to pull out. Rodrigo is a role of extremes, even within the bel canto repertoire, requiring heroic weight in the extended coloratura passages, very high singing, and also a very strong low register. This was an exceptional début - Spyres delivered all of this in spades, offering full support of the vocal line across at least two whole octaves from a very rich, powerful, warm and beautiful baritonal low register, to a firm and nicely coloured middle, to a clear and almost as beautiful high register. He's not baritonal in the Kaufmann sense because the top is nowhere near as covered and has authentic Italianate ping. The coloratura is accurate and exciting. Occasionally some of the very top notes were slightly pinched, but I rate this amongst the very best tenor singing we've heard this season. Physically too, he was very convincing, and I can't wait to hear more from him. Strange that he didn't get a bigger ovation at the curtain calls.
Joyce DiDonato sang quite well, but it took until her spectacular final aria for her to really get going - this last piece "Tanti affetti" was easily the best she sounded all night - the coloratura incisive, the timbre firm, the dynamic control exquisite and we finally got to hear some trills at the ROH! In general this is probably the best I've heard her live. The problems are the same though: the vibrato is extremely fluttery, the voice a thin silvery thread (and therefore rather unitalian sounding), and her top sounds tight and restricted. The tension in the sound can be a resource for her to use, but it can also make for uncomfortable listening, and neither the legato nor the intonation is consistent enough to allow the listener to relax and be fully captivated. Acting wise she does quite nicely with what is a rather meek role. I'm sure her fans won't be disappointed, but it's not a voice I can cherish.
This was the first time I have heard Juan Diego Flórez live and I am almost embarrassed to say that I wasn't enamoured, given his apparently universal adoration. The good points are obvious - the extraordinarily firm top, the superb intonation, the razor sharp coloratura, the unbelievable squillo. But there were things I didn't like - he is unable to colour the voice at all - the sound you hear at the beginning of the night is the same sound you'll hear for the entire evening. This would be OK, but there's a lot of "noise" in the sound (harmonics that are jarring with the fundamental) which gives it a hardness that can turn bleating if he pushes too hard. And he did just that in the trio which involves the two tenors hitting the same high note repeatedly - Spyres sounded ringing, beautiful, not massive, but Florez pushed them so that they were much louder, but lost quality - a couple even lost their vibrato entirely. Any sort of interpretive nuance was hard to come by too - connecting musical line and emotion is not a strong point. Add to this a thin low register (high notes aren't everything), stock acting (e.g. lots of raising the arms) and a lack of focus on his colleagues, and the result is a rather unengaging stage personality.
The rest of the cast are decent, especially Justina Gringyte as an extraordinarily loud and pingy Albina (another trouser role). The ROH orchestra are flabby and ponderous under Michele Mariotti, never capturing the picante bite and electric detail of Rossini's writing. There are ensemble issues too, but it's the laxness that makes the music seem hazy and lethargic - too much body, not enough energy.
Overall, this is probably worth going to see for the singing, and reasonably entertaining production, but beware it's a real marathon piece (first act finished at 8:43pm, after a 7:00pm kickoff) so not if you don't love Rossini!