April 2018

La Donna del Lago
G. Rossini

The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott greatly inspired the art of the 19th century. It is the dawn of romanticism which can be seen in musical, visual and dramatic creation. The book itself, which is written in a form of a poem is specifically a masterpiece of english language. The play of words and the poetic atmosphere which is created in this book captured the imagination of its readers worldwide.

The story itself, however, is rather strange. Elena, a daughter of a clanchief is being followed by Giacomo (the King of Scotland) who is disguised as Uberto. The clanchiefs are opposing the King and are preparing to go to war. Giacomo, alias, Uberto is in love with Elena, whom he apparently got to know in past when she was a young girl and spent some time at the Scottish court. Douglas, her father, wants to marry her off to Rodrigo, another powerful clanchief in order to unite their houses by marriage and go to war against the King. Uberto is following Elena telling her of his love but she explains him that she is in love with Malcolm. Malcom is in reality  the man she loves but their love is a secret. Uberto leaves her a ring telling her that if ever she shall be in trouble she should show this ring at court and will be received immediately by the King. He leaves. Elena agrees, however, under pressure from her father, to marry Rodrigo, very much to the dissappointment of Malcolm.

But before the marriage can start, the clans are being attacked by the armies of the King and they all leave to war. The clans lose and Rodrigo dies. Elena decides to go to see the King and beg for pardon for her father and Malcolm who got captured. The King reveals that he is Uberto and that he was in disguise. He pardons her father and Malcolm and gives his blessing to Elena to marry Malcolm. The opera ends in a lieto fine.

Elena who is having a secret love, which she finally reveals and gets the blessing of the King while at the same time being forced by her father to marry Rodrigo, and on the top the King who, in disguise has this erotic-amourous desire for her, puts her in a centre of a strange traingle of desire-power and erotic.

A story which is very unusual and which portrays a young woman who enflmaes strong desires by several men.

When looking at this story i wanted to relate it to the time when it was written. What were the cultural, political and esthetic influences to create this story? What did the author want to achieve? And why did the readers of that time become so affected by the lady of the lake?

In order to understand better the background one has to go back in history and examine three develoments which greatly influenced the lady of the lake. These three aspects come from the political movement, namely feminism of the 18th and 19th century, in aethetic terms its the creation of gothic storytelling and thirdly it is the psychological treatment and thematisation of mainly female hysteria and madness in art.

The political movement for the rights of women was gaining in force during the time of Rossini and Sir Walter Scott. In general, the 19th century opera loved to thematise various female charachters who were pray of a stystem dominated by men. From Lucia di Lammermoore to La Traviata there are many books and operas which used female tragedy as a strong connection in storytelling to an audience which greatly was affected by similar destinies.

The esthetic aspect of Donna del Lago is closely intervoven with the Gothic storytelling. It was a way to set dramatic stories into an imaginative historic past. Usually some historic facts were used only as a background to a completely invented fantasy story.

Into this supernatural occasions were added such as witches, prophecies, wizzards, obscure wildness of nature, Castles and knights from a forgotten past. It was the birth of the gothic heroine in which these pale skinned female charachters were either completely part of a male dominated rough world or they opposed it by paying at the end by loosing their minds or death.

The third aspect is the concept of hysteria and madness. Opera of the 19th century adored to develop scens of madness and hysterical desires of love in a sexually surpressed society. These hysterical behaviors were equally found with men as well as women. However, in opera and literature, female characters were more popular.

Sigmund Freud was particularly interested in hysteria. He thought that hysteria may have been related to the unconscious mind and separate from the conscious mind or the ego. He was convinced that deep conflicts in the mind, some concerning instinctual drives for sex and aggression, were driving the behavior of those with hysteria. Freud developed psychoanalysis in order to help patients that had been diagnosed with hysteria reduce internal conflicts causing physical and emotional suffering. As a result, theories relating to hysteria came from pure speculation. Doctors and physicians could not connect symptoms to the disorder, causing it to decline rapidly.

Today, hysteria is recognised only in some cases of schizofrenia, borderline personality disorders and some others. But where does that all lead us to the Story of Donna del Lago? Looking at the story which has a peculiar triangle of desire I decided to set the whole story as if it was a hysterical daydream by Elena.

At the beginning of the Opera we see Elena, dressed as a bourgois lady reading a book of Sir Walter Scott. In her house she observes a huge painting in a fantastic style by Heinrich Fuessli. Suddenly she starts to imagine herself in an inveted story and enters into the painting. The entire story now develops like a Freudian dream where subconscious sexual desires of Elena clash with infantile love affaires and suffarance of being forced to marriage to which she does not agree but quietly accepts. The entire male power which crashes over her and the lieto fine with this naive ending are like a storm of borderline ups and downs between desire and the harsh reality.

In the end she exits again from the painting, and her daydream in which she lived all her aspirations and emotional as well as sexual desires. The last aria, tanti affani, is set almost as a madness aria in which the bourgoise Elena lives her frustrated life with dreams fed by books and art of her period. At the end of the opera, her real husband, whom she imagines in her dream to be Rodrigo whom she hates and who dies, is in fact her sad reality, and who joins her in the drawing room for tea.

For me the importance was to set the action on a multi layered storytelling by implying the social harsh reality of the women of the 19th century while setting the story of the lady of the lake as pure fiction with Freudian psychological subtones of suppresed desires.
The injustices which women had to suffer and still suffer today, worldwide in many countries, make it today problematic to present a story which is so far from the reality of female destinies of that time, that to my opinion staging it uncritically would border on cynicism.
(Max Emanuel Cencic, stage notes)

La Donna del Lago is a co-production between Opera de Lausanne and the Croatian National Theatre Zagreb.
The guest performance of La Donna del Lago at Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden on 24 May 2019 has been organized by Parnassus Arts Productions.



directed by Max Emanuel Cencic:

April 22, 25, 27 and 29, 2018:
Lausanne (CH)
(4 performances)

April 12, 16, 18, 20, 23 and 25, 2019:
Zagreb (HR)
(6 performances)



Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 20 april 2018
Luzerner Zeitung, 23 april 2018





Stage Direction