La donna del lago
“The subject is rather romantic, but I think it is effective.” A satisfied Gioachino Rossini wrote these lines to his mother following completion of his opera La donna del lago. His own intention had been to take the development of the opera seria further, but from this “rather romantic” subject that he mentions with some embarrassment the entire genre of romantic Italian opera emerged. The story on which the work is based, The Lady of the Lake, is by Sir Walter Scott whose historical, heroic writings were tremendously popular in Europe at the time. Rossini was the first of many composers to be inspired by these atmospheric, gripping tales.
The idyllic Loch Katrine in the Scottish Highlands is the scene of political conflict. The Highlanders are rising up against King James V. For his reason, the King travels through the dangerous region incognito, calling himself “Uberto”. On the shore of the loch he meets Elena, the “lady of the lake”, and falls in love with her. But her father, Douglas, has promised her to Rodrigo, the leader of the rebellion. She herself loves the sensitive Malcolm, so the disguised King has no chance of winning her. He suppresses his own feelings and gives Elena a ring, telling her to take it to the King whenever danger threatens. This gift brings “Uberto” into conflict with the jealous Rodrigo. The two fight a duel, and Rodrigo is killed. The rebels are defeated and the leaders thrown into a dungeon, Elena’s father and Malcolm among them. Elena then brings the ring to the King. “Uberto” now reveals his true identity as the monarch and releases Douglas and Malcolm from prison.
Soon after its premiere in the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on 24 October, 1819 La donna del lago became one of Rossini’s most popular operas. He had created the brilliant title role for the legendary singer Isabella Colbran, who later became his wife. Malcolm was portrayed by the alto Rosmunda Pisaroni. This trouser part of the adolescent lover goes back to the castrato tradition and consequently requires enormous coloratura abilities. In this work, Rossini invented something that had never been heard in opera before: he used music to evoke the atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands. One particular highlight is the chorus of bards – Rossini himself was so delighted with it that he resurrected the melody in 1846 as his musical contribution to the proclamation of Pope Pius IX – with different words, of course.