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What is it about opera in performance that, when it succeeds, scales the heights of human emotion, art and possibility; and when it fails, disappoints and aggravates on an equally grand scale? Good TV and bad TV? Not that far apart. Fine art and kitsch? Often a matter of opinion.  But opera? Mozart, even in a mediocre productions, can make you believe in angels (even if you might wish that they were wearing better clothes.) Unbelievable singing, even in an obscure or obtuse work, can elevate your heart and mind. But what happens when beautiful compositions or exceedingly talented artists are stuck in a production that is abysmal? Alack the day!

This brings me to La Donna del Lago, seen recently at the Met. Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez are at the pinnacles of their careers, and you cannot find more accomplished or more beautiful singing. Indeed, from the standpoint of musical performance, there were no weak links amongst the singers – everyone on stage was masterful in the florid and breath-defying bel canto style required by Rossini. But the production? Oh my. What were the director and designer thinking to thrust this matchless cast into a morass of clumsy staging, ugly and unimaginative sets and bewildering and unkind costume choices? It was diamonds sparkling in sludge. Stinky sludge.

Directors of operas have difficult jobs, and do well to understand that they are dealing with people who have spent decades training to sing, and not necessarily to act or to move. These singing artists exert powerful control over their breathing and voices, but this often does not extend to a similar control over the rest of their bodies. So discovering that, for instance, you have a dazzling singer attached to an ungainly body, with no spatial awareness or physical control, who cannot convincingly move, or dance, or fight, should lead to choices that minimize the risk to that artist. To ignore these issues often leads to humiliation. I remember with clarity a moment at the San Francisco Opera, now more than twenty years ago, when a sumptuous-voiced mezzo, cursed with a clumsy and graceless body, was singing the title role in Carmen. In Lillas Pastia’s tavern this poor woman was placed on top of a table and given a pair of castanets to accompany herself as she sang – it took two men just to get her on top of the table. She was uncomfortable, clearly terrified of falling and barely able to move, although she gamely tried, a little, to sway as if to dance. Her physical situation distracted both from her ability to sing and from the story – this was the sultry and relentlessly seductive Carmen? It was laughable, and sad for the singer because it was the director’s choice that made her look ridiculous. Of course in opera there must always be a suspension of disbelief, but a director’s work can make it possible or impossible.

In Donna del Lago, the director and designer were both uncharitable. Over and over again, the singers were made to upstage themselves as duets were arranged with one person placed significantly more downstage than the other, resulting in nervous eyes darting back and forth between the conductor in front of them and their singing partner over their left or right shoulder. Over and over again, awkward stage pictures arose as hoards of chorus members lumbered on for a few brief lines, then lumbered off again with no dramatic purpose, herds of village women or soldiers coming and going at random. A domestic scene in a small cottage suddenly became, what? a wine garden? with what seemed to be a waiter entering from the opera next door to interrupt a family scene. An extraordinarily difficult tenor aria on a military theme was accompanied by crowds of soldiers punching their fists in the air on every high note as if at a football game, and striking their swords on their shields to bang in time to the music, Monty Python style. When a comet was meant to appear in the sky, a filmed projection flashed across the back wall, and the entire company was made to do an abrupt about-face, stare at the projection for a second and then spin back to us, still singing. I doubt Rossini had British panto in mind, but it was that silly.

And the costumes were tone-deaf. The role of Malcolm was sung by a woman, in a “trouser” role. Often the mezzo sopranos who specialize in these roles are boyish themselves, slender or tall. Frederica von Stade was a memorable Cherubino, and more recently Isabel Leonard completely convinced me she was an adolescent boy. But other singers, such as Marilyn Horne, used creative costuming to disguise, or at least minimize their very womanly figures. Daniela Barcellona, the Italian mezzo who sang Malcolm, is very tall but not at all shaped like a man. She had no assistance whatsoever from her costumer. Given that the character was part of a Highland band of rebels, she (and they) wore a sloppy sort of kilt; and I suppose in an attempt at historic accuracy were not given boots to wear, but ankle shoes and socks. So this brilliant singer, who did an exquisite job with very difficult music, looked for all the world like a girl scout on steroids, stuffed and hunched on the top in an effort to disguise her bosom, gangly and out of proportion on the bottom, with bobby socks and ugly shoes. What, the Metropolitan Opera couldn’t afford to give this lady a pair of boots, at least? She could not have been less convincing as the primary love interest of the title character.

I could go on – the sudden appearance of shirtless shamans, smearing themselves in blue mud for a few minutes prior to battle, seemingly visiting from an exoticized Russian ballet; the inclusion of a few village women in an otherwise soldierly setting, apparently brought on just so they could be harassed, having no connection at all to what was being sung; the transformation of James V of Scotland’s court into an sparkling, Disney-esque palace scene with Elizabethan overtones, a full 75 years in advance of that era… All around me throughout the evening, the audience was breathless in admiration for the singing, but at the intermission I saw many people shaking their heads and giggling over these odd, appalling and ultimately old-fashioned production choices. I note that this production was shared with other opera companies and may have been developed for different venues, but it is, after all, Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera, where the bar for dramatic standards presumably has been raised. I can’t understand how this mess escaped under the radar, and it was unfortunate for the world-class singers involved.

©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.

Daniela Barcellona