Catching an International Wave: Rossini's 'The Lady of the Lake'

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woo-1644-DonnaDelLago mainEuropean classical music is often thought of as something steeped in tradition, slow to change, even hidebound -- an art form in which innovations tend to be tied to a constant evolutionary process governed by the tried and true.

Yet there have been moments when the classics have felt the sudden influence of something from outside that standard tradition -- something exotic.  It happened in the late 1700s, when Vienna, a true bastion of classical tradition, was swept by a Turkish craze, and the musical style of Turkish military bands -- known as janissary music -- started turning up in the city's concert halls and theaters.  One brilliant example is Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, an entire opera with a Turkish theme, capped off with an exuberant finale billed as a "Janissary Chorus."  

A few decades after that Turkish phase in Vienna, the Romantic era began to bloom. For inspiration, musicians began turning to tales of dark and stormy places -- places like Scotland.   It wasn't necessarily Scottish music that drove the trend; you don't hear many bagpipes in 19th-century symphonies and operas.  Instead, some of Europe's finest composers were seduced both by the Scottish landscape, with its rocky coastlines and windswept highlands, and by its literature.  Felix Mendelssohn made a famous visit to the Scottish Hebrides islands, resulting in his brooding overture "Fingal's Cave."  Franz Schubert wrote songs using Scottish poetry -- including his famous "Ave Maria," a setting of a poem by Sir Walter Scott.  Hector Berlioz wrote an overture inspired by Scott's novel Rob Roy</em.

But the taste for all things Scottish may have taken its strongest hold in Italy's opera houses, especially when it comes to the novels and poetry of Walter Scott.  Rossini wrote his opera La Donna del Lago in 1819, basing it on Scott's narrative poem The Lady of the Lake -- and it launched a sort of Scott mania.  Over the next two decades or so, Scott-based operas turned up at a rate of more than one each year.  Giovanni Pacini wrote two of them, The Talisman in 1829 and Ivanhoe in 1832, and Gaetano Donizetti followed in 1835 with Lucia di Lammermoor, based on Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor.

Donizetti's sensational Lucia may be the most famous of all the Scott-based operas, but second prize likely goes to Rossini's La Donna del Lago.  After its 1819 premiere in Naples, the opera quickly spread across Europe, and even made its way to New York, in 1829.  By the 1850s it had largely disappeared -- and was barely heard again for more than a century.  That may be because its lead roles are among the most vocally demanding that Rossini ever wrote.  Or, perhaps it's because the opera is long on arias and short on action.  Whatever the reason, the opera came out of its hibernation in great form, revealing itself as one of Rossini's most purely beautiful scores.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Donna del Lago from the 2016 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's hometown. Soprano Salome Jicia and mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan are the opera's lovers, Elena and Malcolm, along with tenors Juan Diego Florez and Michael Spyres as Uberto and Rodrigo, in a performance led by conductor Michele Mariotti.

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