It's a huge coup for Garsington Opera to tempt a director of David Alden's international standing to work there, and the result is one of the finest productions the summer season in the Oxfordshire countryside has ever presented. Though hugely popular in the 19th century, Rossini's La Donna del Lago is hardly standard fare nowadays - those with long memories remember a Covent Garden production in the early 1980s - but Alden's enthusiasm for the piece and his skill in bringing it to life make the best possible case for its return to the repertory, and for serious Rossini in general.
Based on Walter Scott's narrative poem The Lady of the Lake, La Donna del Lago takes place in 16th-century Scotland, a love affair set against the background of rebellions against the reign of James V. In Gideon Davey's designs for Garsington, that romanticised view of the Highlands is embodied in a reproduction of an early 19th-century painting of Loch Katrine on the back wall, while Alden offers a much less reverential view of this world, constantly counterpointing the action with subversive humour.Highlights are the cheroot-smoking, Country Life-reading deer who treat the king's efforts to shoot them with disdain, the lager-swilling rabble who support the rebel cause, and the servant who carries an axe with her everywhere, desperate to use it at the first provocation.
But, for all the jokes, this beautifully detailed staging delineates the emotional truths of the drama perfectly, and musical standards under conductor Parry are equally high. The central roles of Elena, the Lady of the Lake herself, and Giacomo, who is the king of Scotland in disguise, are hugely taxing bel canto parts, but Carmen Giannattasio and Colin Lee sing them wonderfully, taking the fusillades of coloratura in their strides. In the trousers role (perhaps that should be kilt role) of Malcolm, Elena's true love, is the highly accomplished Alexandra Sherman, and Michael Colvin is Rodrigo di Dhu, another high-pressure tenor role dispatched with great aplomb. The chorus, given so much to do by Alden, do it all wonderfully.