By Josie Cox
LONDON (Reuters) - Even with one of the world's most athletic opera singers at her side and plenty of practice, American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato reckons the latest London production of Gioachino Rossini's "La Donna Del Lago" is the challenge of a lifetime.
DiDonato and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez told Reuters at the Royal Opera House production's opening on Friday night that performing their technically demanding roles in the John Fulljames interpretation is almost like an elite sport.
"When you're on stage and you know you have to hit this incredibly difficult note, and there's an exhilarating silence in the audience and everybody is zeroed in on you, it's like you're running for gold in the Olympics," DiDonato said.
"La Donna del Lago" or Lady of the Lake is based on an 1810 Walter Scott poem in which Didonato plays the ginger-haired Elena: the enchanting Lady of the Lake who finds herself at the center of - not one - but two love triangles.
Florez, who sings the role of her love-struck suitor King James V and is well known for his incredible vocal range, said the piece never gets easier.
"Everything about it is difficult," Florez said. "I have performed the part many times before but it is still a huge challenge."
Elena's father is fighting with the clans against the king's rule and has promised his daughter's hand in marriage to the brutish clan leader, Rodrigo.
But Elena is smitten with the young romantic hero Malcolm and at the same time has become the object of desire for King James - who disguises himself as a hunter to win her heart.
Florez, known in the opera world as a vocal acrobat, plays a domineering king whose steely veneer crumbles when he encounters the striking Elena, revealing his sensitive core.
The tenor showcases his vocal brilliance in a heart-wrenching aria in which the king declares his love.
He doesn't quite eclipse his showstopping "Ah! Mes Amis" from Donizetti's "La Fille du Régiment", where he hits nine top C's, but certainly rivals it as a piece de resistance.
Although he is frequently cast in Rossini, Donizetti or Bellini operas, where rapid-fire strings of notes regularly loop up and down the musical staff, Florez said he is always looking for new challenges.
"I know what I can do and I know what I'm most comfortable with but I'm always looking for new roles," he said.
Premiered in 1819 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, "La Donna del Lago", which also stars leading bel canto voices Simon Orfila and Colin Lee, evokes the magical mystery of Rossini's Scottish landscapes through a striking set.
The first act is staged against the backdrop of a giant painting, depicting dramatic Highland lochs and hills, before it is rolled aside to reveal a giant winding staircase representing Elena's home.
The passion, frustration and desperation that the characters endure are illustrated through the use of flames and smoke and a dead hog is cut open over a cauldron on stage before an epic stand-off between the king and the Highland rebels.
DiDonato, who last month announced that she would be headlining the Last Night of the Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall in September, described the opportunity to perform in London as returning to her "home away from home".
Born and educated in middle class Kansas, London is widely perceived to be the place of her first breakthrough, when she starred as the love interest in Leos Janacek's 2003 version of "Cunning Little Vixen".
Since then, she has earned accolades for her growing discography, one cherry on the cake being her 2012 Grammy Award and 2010 Gramophone Artist of the Year prize.
The 44-year also fosters a growing fan base through her blog and Twitter page, injecting a new energy into the sometimes achingly traditional world of opera through social media.
Under the pseudonym "Yankeediva" she tweets, blogs and regularly uploads YouTube videos to share anecdotes of her experiences travelling the world and pursue a passion for improving arts education.
"I want young people to understand how exciting and important the arts can be and social networks are a great media for doing this."
(Reporting By Josie Cox, editing by Paul Casciato)