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Must-see ‘Donna’ illuminates SF stage

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I first heard Joyce DiDonato in San Francisco singing Rosina in the “Barber of Seville.” Clearly this was a voice to be reckoned with. After achieving deserved success at the highest level of the profession, she brings her formidable talent to Santa Fe this summer in another Gioachino Rossini opera.

DiDonato has sung the title role of the little-known “La Donna del Lago” in Paris and Milan, Italy’s La Scala before coming to New Mexico. Not surprisingly, the production was built around her, but the rest of the cast offers a bounty of beautiful singing with some genuine surprises.

DiDonato’s razor-point intonation and radiant tone capture the role of Elena, the lady of the lake, to perfection. From her opening melody, “Oh mattutini albori! (Beautiful morning dawns)” to the final aria “Tanti affetti (Joyous emotions),” the most often-performed excerpt from the opera, she is nothing short of definitive – and not to be missed.

The opera is loosely based on the narrative poem “The Lady of the Lake” by Sir Walter Scott, a story of love, jealousy and clan warfare in the Scottish Highlands. But as in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Scott is all but gone from the process except in little more than the basic plot outline. Haunting Gothic mystery is replaced with the treacle of Italian lyricism.

One would hope that seasoned opera-goers (at least) will not bat an eyelash at seeing an African-American singing the Scottish King James (here Giacomo V). Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the king disguised as the wandering stranger Uberto, lends his robust yet mellow mellifluousness voice to the part, most effective despite a tendency to thrust himself physically forward on the highest notes. He and DiDonato dominate the first half-hour of the opera culminating in a lovely duet.

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A real find of this production is Sicilian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato in the trouser role (or should we say kilt role?) of Malcolm, Elena’s true love. Though making her Santa Fe debut, Pizzolato is renowned in her native country for having sung all the major Rossini roles, and we are fortunate to have this opportunity to hear her gorgeous soft-timbered mezzo, especially in her love-stricken aria, “Mura felici (Joyous city walls).” One cannot possibly imagine a harsh note from this voice. Clearly the opera is from another era when it seemed appropriate for a woman to sing the romantic male lead.

René Barbera, chief of the Highlanders, lends his heroic high tenor to the part, as we first hear him in the call to arms, “Qual rapido torrente.”

In the first three productions this season the designers have made excellent use of the earlier starting time of 8:30 with the splendid effect of keeping the back of the stage open to the scenic New Mexico sky. Here a platform provides a stretch of Scottish heath as the background darkens gradually to black. And even before sunset, the flashes of lightning could not have been timed for greater drama.

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