La Donna del Lago from a Chorister's perspective

This is second in a series aimed at highlighting The Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon Broadcasts

By Mary K. Hughes

The first time that I heard La Donna del Lago was in college. It was a recording of Marilyn Horne and I wondered if I would ever get to hear it live because it was staged so infrequently. That, and who could sing the demanding role of Elena?

Fast forward to 2015 and I’m in utter disbelief that I’m only mere feet away from Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee, the main characters in Rossini’s operatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 narrative poem. They both make it look so easy and my predominant thought is how people should be beating the door down to hear this indescribably beautiful singing – and it’s LIVE! Real, live people singing in the most extraordinary, beautiful bel canto style. The whole cast is truly wondrous.     

For the Chorus there are many non-musical details and logistics to manage outside of the music that make this a challenging opera. The Chorus Men have a particularly difficult agenda to fulfill because they are required to be on stage for most of the opera. In addition to having more music, some men have up to 6 costume changes: peasant, hunter, kilt, Bard, back to hunter, and members of the King’s court in the Act II finale. Several of these costume changes are quite fast, and the men who sing the mystical Bards are required to apply blue body makeup to themselves and to supers during the Act I finale. The blue body paint is transported in bowls carried by members of the Ladies Chorus and brought to the warriors at the end of the Act I with a warlike ensemble within which the Bards have their most challenging musical moments in the show;  highly exposed with complicated texts with minor variations. The scene ends in a show of patriotism and determination.

The set is intended to emulate the Scottish highlands and it built on a raked stage with rubbery nubs to simulate heather and grass growing. Coming off of the lit set into a dark exit is one of the pitfalls that the Chorus has to negotiate regularly, and La Donna del Lago is no exception. Live fire and tricky multi-level drop-offs precede the exits that make the stage terrain unusually complicated, but as in all productions safety is a priority and there are three safety delegates within the Chorus who work to ensure and address safety concerns.

That said, there is no other group in the world so accustomed to thinking on their feet, which means adapting to unusual stage terrain, multiple costume changes, and rehearsing and performing many operas within a given week.  All of this happens seamlessly while maintaining the highest of musical standards. The height of vocal achievement is on full and dazzling display in La Donna del Lago both from the Metropolitan Opera’s principal soloists and chorus artists, and underscored, as always, by the luminous playing of our distinguished Met Orchestra. It all makes for a satisfying and exciting night at the opera!