The Myths of Scottish Culture Explored Through Italian Opera

Photo by Bill Cooper

In the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott promoted Scotland to the world, in what has arguably led to an enduring myth of what it means for the Scots to be culturally distinct from England. Scott was a unionist who referred to Scotland as North Britain, but his efforts to sell the Highlands as tartan-wearing clans with romanticised 16th century traditions have endured as a symbol of independence.

Rossini’s opera La Donna del Lago is inspired by Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake, and while much of the faux-history gets lost in Italian melodrama, there are hints of “otherness” that create a haunting beauty, which matches the lovelorn story.

King James V falls in love at first sight of the eponymous loch-y lady Elena. But she is the daughter of his enemy (oh no), and also she’s betrothed to a rival warrior Rodrigo (Oh No!), but actually she’s in love with Malcom (OH NO!! – it is a melodrama…). The plot is simple — rival men war over a woman, and land. But the score is spellbinding: distant horns call straight from the highlands, Elena’s opening aria brings to mind the still waters on which she rows, and the starkly lit trees on stage evoke a woodland realm of secrets. It’s very pretty.

But that’s not to say it all falls into the Scott-ish tradition of romanticising history. There is a distinctly modern edge when it comes to violent retribution and the treatment of women. One particularly stirring scene shows the warriors returning home from war, singing about how they will now get the love they deserve. It could easily be played with eager women looking after the warlike men, but in this version they are cajoled, pushed around and brutally manhandled as literal trophies of war — there’s nothing romantic in it. There’s also the constant presence of Enlightenment gentlemen who examine the scene with all the curiosity of people looking into glass cabinets, which at times, they are. It’s a strong allusion to Scott’s motivations for writing the original poem, but perhaps more heavy-handed than necessary.

The Royal Opera House has drawn together some of the most impressive singers of Rossini you’re likely to see for a while in this new production by John Fulljames. American soprano Joyce DiDonato as Elena handles the near-impossible final canto so brilliantly that she has the audience on the edge of their seats — which in the ROH can be quite frightening. And when she’s partnered with Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona as her lover Malcom, seems to swim through melodies in perfect unison. Both women received rapturous applause; if only they could have popped down to the House of Commons that day, we’re sure they could have melted some stony anti-gay marriage hearts.

La Donna del Lago plays at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden until 11 June. Tickets are returns only. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

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