La donna del lago, melodramma in two acts to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, was first produced at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, on 24th October 1819. The singer at the first perfomance were Giovanni David (Giacomo), Michele Benedetti (Duglas), Andrea Nozzari (Rodrigo), Isabella Colbran (Elena), Rosmunda Pisaroni (Malcom), Maria Manzi (Albina), Gaetano Chizzola (Serano), Massimo Orlandini (Bertram).
The action takes place in Scotland in about 1530, at the time of the Highlanders’ rebellion against King James Stuart V.
On the shores of Lake Kattrine, at the foot of Mount Benledi. A group of shepherds greets the dawn, while echoes of the hunters are heard in the distance. Elena, as on every other day, sculls across the quiet waters of the lake in her boat, dreaming of Malcom, the young warrior who, for love of her, has deserted the King’s troops and joined the rebel army. Attracted by tales of the girl’s legendary beauty and wanting to meet her, King James of Scotland haunts the spot disguised as a hunter, under the assumed name of Uberto of Snowdon. When he meets the girl, he pretends to be lost and to have been separated from his companions. Elena invites him to get into her boat, and does not hesitate to offer him hospitality in her home, on the opposite shore of the lake. While these two float over the water, the hunters look for their companion in vain, and are afraid that they have lost all trace of him.
In the home of Elena’s father, Duglas. Elena’s friends Albina and Serano are awaiting the arrival of Rodrigo di Dhu, head of the Alpino clan that is opposing the expansionist plans of James of Scotland. When Uberto is led into the girl’s modest home, on the walls he recognizes the enemy’s banners; Elena tells him that she is the daughter of Duglas d’Angus, once the King’s tutor but now one of the rebels. Meanwhile, some of Elena’s friends are rejoicing over her imminent marriage to Rodrigo, the husband chosen for her by her father, in gratitude for the hospitality shown to him in his enforced exile. Elena, promised in marriage against her will, tells Uberto about her unhappiness, and in this way involuntarily encourages him to hope that he might win her affection. In truth the young lady’s uneasiness springs from her missing her beloved Malcom. In order to avoid his identity being discovered, Uberto is forced, unwillingly, to leave Elena and to re-join his hunter friends.
When everyone has left the building, Malcom comes on; sadly, he broods over his love for Elena, which an unkind destiny has not helped along. Elena and her father Duglas come in, preceded by Serano and observed, from his hiding place, by Malcom. Duglas tells his daughter that Rodrigo is about to arrive, and orders her to accept his hand in marriage. The young lady tries to oppose her father’s will, pleading that it would be inopportune to talk about marriage when a war is about to break out. However, Duglas insists that she obey him, and, hearing the trumpets of war, goes out to meet Rodrigo. Malcom can now show himself to Elena at last, and the two of them swear eternal love and fidelity.
On a nearby plain surrounded by mountains. Rodrigo is welcomed with joyous song by Duglas and the rebel army. In spite of all her father’s insistence, Elena does not succeed in hiding her anguish when she meets her promised husband, and Rodrigo does not fail to notice this. Malcom leads his men on. As soon as the two lovers see each other, and at the moment in which Rodrigo introduces Elena to Malcom as his future bride, the instinctive reactions of the young couple let their secret slip out.
The imminent enemy attack re-unites everyone, spurring them on to battle. During a solemn religious ceremony, between oaths of loyalty and warlike hymns, a meteor dashes across the sky. Inflamed by this sign, which they take to mean a promise of victory, the warriors go to face the enemy.
In a thick wood. The battle between the King’s army and the rebel troops is about to begin. Uberto, dressed as a shepherd, is looking for Elena, to whom he means to declare his love. He finds her near a grotto, a temporary shelter, waiting for news of her father, who has not yet returned. Uberto tells her that he loves her, but Elena declares that she loves another. Faced with this refusal, Uberto offers her his friendship anyway, and gives her a ring, which he says was given to him by the King of Scotland for having once saved him. In case of trouble, she could obtain forgiveness for herself and for her family simply by presenting the ring to the King. The two are surprised by Rodrigo, who, maddened by jealousy after secretly observing the scene, calls his warriors to him and challenges his rival, whom he takes to be one of the King’s followers. Elena’s intervention is not enough to prevent the duel between the two parties.
In a grotto. Meanwhile, resting a while from the battle, Malcom goes to the grotto to save Elena from King James’s troops, who have penetrated into the lands of the Alpino clan. But all he finds there is the desolate Albina. Serano comes in to announce the rebels’ defeat and the surrender of Duglas, who means to give himself up to the King to beg for peace and to calm him down. He has told Elena of his plans and she has rushed off to the royal palace to look for her father. Some warriors bring the news that Rodrigo has been killed in the duel, and that the victory of King James’s troops is now certain. Deeply concerned, Malcom goes off with them to look for his beloved.
In the royal castle of Stirling. Duglas asks for pardon for his daughter and for his people. Pretending to be stubbornly inflexible, the King sends his old tutor away escorted by guards. Elena is led into the palace, in whose rooms she had passed her childhood and early youth. By means of the ring given her by Uberto, she hopes to win pardon for her father and family. From one of the other rooms of the palace, she hears Uberto’s voice singing a love song that includes her name. Seeing the young man again, Elena shows all her joy and asks him to lead her into the King’s presence.
The court is gathered in the throne-room. Elena’s eyes sweep over knights and ladies, but she cannot see the King. At this point, the young man reveals that the King of Scotland is standing before her, because Uberto of Snowdon is none other than he. Assuming his authority once more, King James fulfills his promise and pardons Duglas, restoring all his noble titles. He pretends to want to administer a fitting punishment to the traitor Malcom, who is also his prisoner. But then, before everybody, he embraces him and joins his right hand to Elena’s. In the general relief at the new-found peace, Elena can scarcely contain her happiness in being re-united to Malcom and her father.