This lovely Rossini opera seria is sometimes known as "the other Scott opera," as it, like Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is based on a work by Sir Walter Scott. (Of course, there are operas based on other Scott novels, such as Sullivan's Ivanhoe, but they are generally quite obscure.) While this opera is probably best known for Malcolm's bravura "Mura felice," it overflows with stirring ensembles and striking arias and duets. Rather like Donizetti's Lucia, the opera, while set in Scotland, could take place almost anywhere, and does not use any particularly Scottish musical references or themes, though the harp-accompanied "Gia un raggio" in which the bards exhort the warriors does add a touch of Celtic authenticity.
The donna del lago (lady of the lake) is Elena (soprano), daughter of Douglas, a Highland nobleman. She and Malcolm (a mezzo role) are in love, but Douglas has promised Elena to Rodrigo (tenor), who, like Malcolm and Douglas, is a leader of the rebellion against the king. The king, also a tenor, appears in disguise as Uberto and falls in love with Elena himself. Accepting her rejection, he gives her a ring which he says will bring her the king's help at any time she, or her lover or father, may need it. The rebellion is defeated, but Elena brings the ring to the court to ask for the king's pardon for her father and Malcolm (Rodrigo has been killed in a duel), and is astonished to find that Uberto is the king. He reunites Elena with her father and lover and they praise his clemency.
The opera is, rather like Rossini's Otello, noteworthy for the way in which the soprano's music is full of pathos and vulnerability, in stark contrast to the aggressive vocal fireworks of the male characters who surround her. The ensemble which closes the first act is also remarkable for its length, despite which the listener is kept engaged by the musical contrasts and continuing excitement. (Rossini, with his deep sense of humor, must have relished the dramatic effects of just about everybody in Scotland showing up and joining in the ensemble.)