In his biography of Rossini, Richard Osborne says of La donna del lago that it’s “ill-suited to larger houses, however grand the piece can be made to seem scenically.”  It’s a spot-on observation and one that Royal Opera Associate Director John Fulljames, in stepping onto the bigger stage, should have heeded.  It would have been better to have acknowledged the dramatic weaknesses of the work and let Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez just sing.  After all, that’s what the audience is there for.  

Fulljames would have been criticised if he’d done that, of course, so it’s a bit of a no-win situation for him.   In fact, his new production can be a very enjoyable outing, if you go to indulge yourself in a gorgeous score and some world-class singing.  The staging isn’t all bad, by any means.  Fulljames has ideas, some big and bold, and some badly under-developed but he’s thought about the piece and designer Dick Bird presents some pleasing visuals.  But then there are some horrible misjudgments, such as the gratuitous mauling of a group of women which does nothing but tell us that the hairy highland chieftain Rodrigo is not the ideal husband for the heroine.  We kind of know that without the unpleasantness.  

The framing device is clumsy and hackneyed.  Updated from its original 16th Century setting to Rossini’s time, we’re in an early 19th-century version of Night at the Museum, with exhibits springing to life and acting out a historical pageant, while two minor characters, Albina (Justina Gringyte in trousers) and Serano (Robin Leggate) are re-cast as guides.  Is one of them supposed to be Rossini?  Which one and why?  The convention is tentatively carried out and confusing.  

Later, when the King defeats the rebels, highlanders are corralled by redcoats (instruments of oppression of an English rather than Scottish king), casting us back a century to the time of Culloden.  Or is that when the pageant is set anyway?  I've lost track.   Based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake, the plot is mindboggling enough without these unnecessary interventions.  

Elena (DiDonato), the daughter of highland rebel Duglas (Simón Orfila), is courted by an endless stream of men, including the Scottish king in disguise as one Uberto (Flórez), while betrothed to the gruesome Rodrigo (Michael Spyres standing in for an indisposed Colin Lee), an ally of her father’s.  Her true love is Malcom, another great lump of Scottish manhood, portrayed here by another Rossini specialist Daniela Barcellona in her belated Covent Garden debut.  Despite Uberto’s ardent wooing, Elena remains faithful to Malcom and, finally revealed as the monarch of the glen, Uberto, like Mozart’s Tito, learns clemency and generously brings the lovers together.  

Conductor Michele Mariotti, making his house debut, begins slowly, without the lushness one can imagine Antonio Pappano bringing to the colourful orchestrations, but things get better during the performance.  The score is full of attention-grabbing numbers and wonderful tunes, from Elena’s opening greeting of the dawn (“Oh mattutini albori”) to the lilting Act 1 duet for Uberto/Elena (“Quali accenti!") and the show-stopper finale “Tanti Affetti,” a true pin-drop moment in DiDonato’s hands.  

The two lead singers, as good as you’ll get in the world today, are magic together (and earn this review an extra star).  Thankfully, Fulljames gives them their moments without too much in the way of distraction.  Barcellona’s scena and cavatina “Elena, oh tu che chiamo” draws the longest applause of the evening and Spyres, who was scheduled to sing Rodrigo later in the run, is an adequate foil to Flórez in the sparky tenor rivalry which is as much about vocal prowess as getting the girl.  

It’s a mixed evening but one that has plenty of delight if you go without expecting too much in the way of theatrical insight or dramatic integrity.  

- Simon Thomas