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La donna del lago: The telling of a national story

With Scottishness in the headlines, the opera based on Sir Walter Scott's poem has never been more timely, says James Naughtie.

By James Naughtie (Broadcaster, BBC Radio 4)

4 June 2013 at 4.45pm | Comment on this article

Scotland is rather interested in Scottishness these days. When independence talk is in the air, now is a good time to call on Sir Walter Scott, the man who told 19th-century Scots how they should think of their history, and wrote it himself.

Scott’s novels and poems took Europe by storm. More than two dozen operas were inspired by Scott, the first of which was Rossini’s La donna del lago, which had its premiere 1819. Scott’s original poem, The Lady of the Lake, encapsulates his uncanny ability to spin a story with which he can paint a vast landscape so natural that it seems to have been there all along – misty and dark, thrilling and dangerous.

Now is just the right moment to recover for opera audiences the cultural significance of the poem. It is much more than a drama of love, says John Fulljames, whose new Royal Opera’s production of La donna del lago is currently on stage at Covent Garden. ‘The Lady of the Lake is about King James’s crowning, his legitimacy and his right to rule. We are talking about how we tell the national story.’

In Scott’s poem, Elena (Ellen) is the beautiful lady on the island, daughter of the king’s sworn enemy, who encounters James V in disguise. She is the agent of reconciliation in the realm, and simultaneously finds love. All ends peacefully, and happily. It is easy to see Scotland herself in the character of Ellen. Scott’s desire - in reinventing a blazing history of Highland feuds, warring ambition and passionate love - was to give Scotland confidence in its own story, not to incite rebellion.

In his new production, John Fulljames interprets the piece as being about the making of history:

Scott invites his readers to join him in imagining a national past, constructed partly from landscape and partly from the tokens of history. He argues that a national story is essential, because without one, a nation has no legitimacy and so no stability. Meanwhile the love story offers a rather utopian, fairy-tale view of how political conflict can be resolved into national peace."

So La donna del lago, first and foremost a love story, has made a timely return to Covent Garden. I saw the last production, with Frederica von Stade and Marilyn Horne, in 1985 on one of its rare UK outings. The opera, Rossini at his most gloriously melodic, is perfectly suited to the moment because it reminds us how easily Scott’s poetry and prose fitted into the politics of the time.

Elena on her island will emerge on the stage as a figure who carries Scotland with her, its particular story and its myths and legends. La donna del lago is an opera in which atmosphere matters as much as plot.

La donna del lago runs until 11 June. Tickets are sold out though returns may become available.
The production is sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation and the Friends of Covent Garden with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, Hélène and Jean Peters, Judith Portrait and Susan and John Singer. The Production Director generously supported by Hamish and Sophie Forsyth.

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