Ellen Douglas—Elena, if you will; the Lady of the Lake—finds herself in Act II of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago in the far from unusual operatic position of having her love claimed by two impassioned tenors in the bel canto version of a macho drag race. What is curious about this is her solution: She runs off with the mezzo-soprano. Well, wouldn’t you? The story of the opera’s a bit like Ernani (one of the suitors is a lecherous king in disguise, just as you’d expect), but only if Ernani ended happily, at the end of Act III, say.

Composed in 1819 (it first reached New York in 1829), La Donna del Lago is one of the 10 operas Rossini composed during his Neapolitan sojourn. Naples, at that time the capital of the largest state in Italy and the biggest city in the peninsula, a rich trade emporium with its very own Rothschild, a proud bastion of musical tradition and the site of the grandest opera house around, the San Carlo, then brand new (the original burnt to the ground in 1815). Rossini’s Neapolitan operas include Otello, a necessity for every bel canto soprano (usually as Desdemona, sometimes in the title role, occasionally both), Armida, Ermione, Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra and two that were rewritten later, in Paris, in French: Mosé and Maometto II.

All these works pretty much vanished from the repertory by mid-century—dramatically, they limp; too, there were no longer tenors or basses who could manage the elaborate coloratura. Rossini’s San Carlo always had two or three coloratura tenors who had to be written into each new work. We now once again have coloratura tenors and basses, and the Neapolitan operas are once more in vogue. The Met has presented Armida, and has now ventured on its first Donna del lago. (NYCO, in its later years, gave Ermione, Donna del Lago and Mosé.)

These works, in their time, exemplified the change from classic old stories to exotic new locales, and few sites were as chic as Scotland, land of Ossian (his forged sagas beloved across the continent) and that rousing new author of historical novels, Sir Walter Scott, whose works inspired dozens of operas. (Rossini would contribute a pasticcio Ivanhoe.) Scott’s Lady of the Lake (1810) is a novel in verse about messy Highland feuds, centered on a mysterious beauty who roams Loch Katrine in a row boat.

Three of Ellen’s songs were set by Schubert (one of them the “Ave Maria,” perhaps his best-known melody) and the salute of Roderick Dhu by his soldiery, “Hail to the Chief,” became our presidential anthem. (Two or three plays based on the poem appeared within the year—Scott was hot and copyright primitive.)

La Donna del Lago, thus, was composed to play to notions of Highland customs and Highland scenery among Neapolitans who had never been there. The original production was all crags and caves and waterfalls, and the prima donna (Isabella Colbran, later Signora Rossini) entered rowing.

For reasons unclear to me, scenery offends the modern producer. The NYCO Donna was all bare brick walls; the Met’s, designed by Kevin Knight with lighting by Duane Schuler and projections by Driscoll Otto, is a narrowing tunnel leading towards a lake at dawn. Clouds at dawn are pretty, and a modern staging might have shown us an evolving sunrise kingdom, but what we got was an unchanging still.

After a few scenes, dawn became a howling gale and a night sky (with a comet rushing past!). Act II had soldiers bearing trees, perhaps en route to Dunsinane. The concluding scene was a throne room, handsome but generic. Of fair Scotland there was no trace. Perhaps that is because this production originated in Santa Fe, where Scottish scenes might clash with New Mexico skies.

Producer Paul Curran clutches at familiar tropes to draw us into the politically confusing story, turning King James’s anxious men into bullies who brutalize peasants for no reason and Roderick (Rodrigo)’s bards into cross-burning, woad-smeared shamans out of Braveheart. The opera’s awkward dramaturgy can never have seemed very clear, but here artifice and naturalism are at full clan feud.

All the weight of a Metropolitan Opera premiere production fell, accordingly, on the shoulders of Joyce DiDonato, who (alone among the Met cast) also sang it in Santa Fe. At a guess, the opera would never have been given in either place without her, and it is only fair to say that whenever she appeared on stage (albeit without row boat), she appeared completely committed to the drama, and every time she sang a phrase, that drama surged into high gear and our hearts sang in response. Scotland may be in a tizzy, we told ourselves, but Ellen, I mean Joyce, will save it if anyone can.

Let us examine her cool mezzo soprano, the way she manages to mean the clichés and fit them into the character she portrays, the way ornaments spring from intention, the way she interacts with the others on the stage, her voice entwining with, bucking up, theirs. Juan Diego Flórez never sounds so pretty as when he duets with DiDonato, John Osborn never so agile. DiDonato can get away with lines that translate as “May your agitated soul recover its reason,” singing with utter conviction. Her grand finale, “Tanti affetti,” the most famous number in the score, is so much an expression of her joy at the unexpected happy ending that she almost forgets—or eschews—the prima donna’s right to turn it into an endless spectacular.

Daniela Barcellona, who sings many a Rossini trouser role (Adelaide de Borgogna, Semiramide, La Gazza Ladra), sang Malcolm Graeme. Although costumed in a monstrous wig and a bad plaid prom dress, she acted effectively and sang with an enjoyably warm sound and swift ornaments, though seemingly not enough of them to justify cabaletta repetition.

Flórez played Uberto, aka King Giacomo V, with a cool regal hauteur indistinguishable in any detail or expression from his Comte Ory or Don Ramiro. His nasal tenor has lost none of its matchless agility and blends pleasingly with DiDonato, but the voice lacks sensual beauty. The contrast of his high tenor (and several natty costumes) with the lower instrument and dull brown shmatta of Osborn as the unloved but heroic Rodrigo Dhu gave an appropriately aural flavor to their rivalry.

Osborn has an almost baritonal tenor, dark and pleasing, a far more agreeable sound than Flórez’s, setting off their rivalry in a brilliant trio they sang with DiDonato. Unfortunately Osborn has a weak top (some notes weren’t there at all), and his coloratura runs were smudged together rather than individual notes—a weakness to which other singers in the cast also inclined, so much so that I wondered if this were some new and unfortunate variation on bel canto. The generally reliable Owen Gradus had a rough night as Ellen’s father, Douglas.

Michele Mariotti kept the score light and frothy, never drowning out his singers and permitting the chorus (often on stage with nothing very significant to do) to hurl their bromides lustily.

You would be well advised to visit La Donna del Lago in the month upcoming, to hear the ladies warble alone and interact with the men. For one thing, even with the best singers in the world, the Met would be unlikely to revive it. I’m sure they can find a better opera for such a cast to do.

Photo: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera