High-Flying Swallow in Helsinki

FinlandFinland  Puccini, La Rondine: Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 20.12.2011 (GF)

Magda – Sirkka Lampimäki
Lisette – Hye-Youn Lee
Ruggero – Mika Pohjonen
Prunier – Juha Riihimäki
Rambaldo – Koit Soasepp
Ivette – Tatjana Romanova-Vorontsova
Bianca – Katriina Kerppola
Suzy – Riikka Rantanen
Périchaud – Waltteri Torikka
Gobin – Lassi Virtanen
Crébillon – Robert McLoud
Georgette – Niina Ahola
Gabriele – Riitta Ullgrén
Lolette – Raisa Vaarna
Major Domo – Kai Valtonen

Director – Jussi Tapola
Conductor – Pietro Rizzo
Sets and Costumes – Mark Väisänen
Choreography – Aita Vuolanto
Lighting Design – Thomas C Hase

This production of La Rondine was first seen at the National Opera in January 2002 and from the premiere cast Juha Riihimäki (Prunier) is the only survivor. Whether he has sung all the previous 27 performances I don’t know, but it was obvious from the outset the he was at ease within his character, allowing him to act with great authority. Some of the other principles took some time to warm up – scenically that is – but the general impression one of a coherent and homogenous performance.

I have recently reviewed two excellent recordings of La Rondine, one DVD and one CD-set, both with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, and revisiting the DVD-set has increased my admiration for this work, both as a drama and for its musical values. Experiencing it live made this impression even stronger.

La Rondine – photo credit Sakari Viika

Like most Puccini operas, La Rondine is a relatively slow starter, but once it has taken hold of the listener/viewer it never loses its grip. This production is very beautiful, boasting elegant sets and period costumes, although the period isn’t mid-19th century as originally intended but rather the end of that century, a bit closer to the time of composition and thus better suited to the music.

The second act, at Bullier’s restaurant, is truly lavish, with can-can girls, showy waiters and a throng of guests in party dress. The last act contrasts strongly with its sun-drenched terrace, belonging to the luxurious villa by the sea, where Magda and Ruggero reside. All in all, the production is a feast for the eye, and – I hasten to add – for the ear.

I have praised the Finnish National Opera’s chorus and orchestra on many occasions and this production is no exception. Pietro Rizzo does full justice to the lovely melodies Puccini created for this melodrama. Originally intended as an operetta, some tunes have a slight Lehár flavour and some waltzes hint at ‘City of My Dreams’, but in general Puccini is his usual self.

The cast list is long – although not as long as for La Fanciulla del West – but most of the characters are only peripheral. The two couples, Magda-Ruggero and Lisette-Prunier – and of course Rambaldo, the rich banker who keeps Magda as his mistress – are the leading personas. Often elderly singers are cast in the role of Rambaldo, but this banker was an artist in mid-career and magnificently portrayed by the Estonian singer Koit Soasepp, who is becoming one of the pillars of Finnish National Opera. He is a good actor and has an imposing bass.

I have already mentioned Juha Riihimäki’s Prunier and he is well partnered by the mercurial Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee as Lisette. A brilliant actress equipped with an equally brilliant voice, she has already been seen in several major roles internationally – Lucia di Lammermoor for instance. Her voice isn’t particularly large, but it nonetheless shines through a full chorus and orchestra. Here is a singer to watch out for in future.

Mika Pohjonen is a good Italian-style tenor, whom I have heard in several leading roles before. He may not be the most charismatic of actors but he is decent nevertheless, and vocally his was a most commendable performance. His introductory aria in act I was dramatic and glowing, he sang the beautiful love motif at the beginning of the big ensemble in act II with warmth and in the concluding duet in act II he was magnificent.

So was Sirkka Lampimäki’s Magda, who initially seemed a bit anonymous. She quickly grew into her character, though, soon standing out as a charming girl and for the rest of the evening creating a multi-facetted portrait of the heroine, torn in the last act between her love for Ruggero and her fear that their liasion will damage him. Initially I felt that her bright voice could do with some more roundness and warmth, but I soon accepted it as it was and became wholly engrossed in her performance.

2011 has been a good Puccini year – and with relative rarities: Il Trittico in May in Helsinki with an especially strong Il Tabarro and a superb La Fanciulla del West in Stockholm just a few days before this revival of La Rondine in Helsinki. Puccini lovers could do much worse than to visit Scandinavia at the moment.

Göran Forsling