United Kingdom Puccini, La rondine: (New production by Tom Hawkes): Soloists and Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, Conductor: Peter Selwyn. Holland Park, London, 7.7.2011. (JPr)
If the modern musicals Miss Saigon and Rent are modern edgier versions of Madama Butterfly and La bohème, then La rondine is a saccharine sweet and very anodyne early twentieth-century ‘take’ on Verdi’s La traviata … without any consumption or death. (Though there have been versions where the scarlet woman Paulette – who is the courtesan Magda in disguise – walking into the sea at the end and drowning herself.) Until his death Puccini was never happy with La rondine. I had never heard La rondine before and came away thinking I still hadn’t. For some reason thoughts of Andrew Lloyd Webber came repeatedly into my mind. How marvellous it is that there can be such parallel musical inspiration because what with the main theme – here Chi il bel sogno di Doretta which Prunier (a poet) and Magda sing during a soiree in Act I – being dispensed with during the first 15 minutes of the evening and musically it all going downhill from there, I was reminded many time of what I had read and heard from Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies.
The story is very slim indeed; in Paris, Magda, the mistress of Rambaldo a wealthy banker, seeks true love and believes she finds it with Ruggero at Bullier’s (an upmarket Café Momus). Penniless but content they are living (here in a hotel) by the sea but Rambaldo wants her back, however Ruggero wants to marry her. She has a notorious past and is not the ‘good, humble, chaste and virtuous’ woman Ruggero’s conservative mother wants for her son and so – like a swallow – she flies back to her protector’s arms. Add in an over-written second amorous couple, Prunier and Lisette, the maid and aspiring singer, some disguises and a major case of mistaken identity – and it is the stuff of most operettas. Certainly this latter pair are involved in one of the most tedious passages of music Puccini must have ever written as Lisette faffs around changing her clothes before, herself, going to Bullier’s. This, as well as, some of the dance music in Act II, could be cut to make for a less drawn out evening that this slight material does not warrant.
Peter Rice’s elegant set designs provides some arches as the backdrop for a spacious conservatory for Act I, which opens up to provide the open-air pavilion of Bullier’s dance-hall in Act II and a sun-bleached hotel terrace for Act III. This has hints of the gilding and glass art of fin de siècle Paris and the rise of Art Nouveau, as do the pastel shades of his costumes for the women. There was also quite an Impressionist atmosphere to it all.
The cast was headed by the gifted soprano Kate Ladner who after a slightly tentative start as Magda revealed some eloquent phrasing, a flawless technique, exquisite pianissimos and some vocal heft when required. She brought her character vividly to life with all her heart-on-her-sleeve emotional turmoil. Most of this must have been in part due to the dramatic persuasiveness of Tom Hawkes’s unfussy direction and some strong acting throughout by all concerned.
The rest of the cast (including many of the smaller roles) were no real match for her and their often slighter voices failed to carry towards the back of the auditorium where I was sitting. With all the distracting noises of a London park at dusk I wonder whether OHP have ever considered enhancing the sound from the stage in some way. Hye-Youn Lee was Magda’s pert, sassy and slightly neurotic maid Lisette and her casting was quite apt since much of her music strangely looks back to Butterfly or forward to Turandot.
It was the male voices that let down the performance somewhat; Nicholas Todorovic as Rambaldo exuded gravitas, but his underpowered voice failed to match his physical presence. As Prunier, Hal Cazalet has the slight voice of a character tenor when I felt this significant role needed a bigger, more assertive, sound. The weakest link was Seán Ruane as Ruggero; not only did there seem little real chemistry between him and Magda, his voice was much too tight and thin and had little Italianate tone. To succeed a performance of La rondine needs two exceptional voices in the leading roles and cannot just rely on one.
The chorus have their big ensemble moment in Act II and seemed to revel in it making an impressive sound. Less impressive was the sound from the 40 members of the City of London Sinfonia who excelled in the more intimate moments but could do nothing with Puccini’s more luscious melodies. Again to succeed this work needs an orchestral wall of sound at times and singers able to overcome it, otherwise we stray even further into the world of Johann Strauss II and Lehár or West End musicals. The conductor, Peter Selwyn, clearly has a great affection for the music but could do little to bring across its real passion and exuberance with so few musicians around him.
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