ROH Does Its Best with Puccini’s Flawed La rondine

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, La rondine (Nicolas Joël’s production revived by Stephen Barlow): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera / Marco Armiliato (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 17.7.2013. (JPr)

Magda de Civry: Ermonela Jaho
Lisette: Sabina Puértolas
Ruggero Lastouc: Atalla Ayan
Prunier : Edgaras Montvidas
Rambaldo Fernandez: Pietro Spagnoli

La Rondine (c) C. Ashmore
La Rondine (c) Catherine Ashmore

When I previously reviewed La rondine (The Swallow) at Holland Park I called it a ‘rightly neglected piece’. Based on this entertaining – and occasionally emotionally engaging – performance at Covent Garden I would perhaps revise this opinion to suggest that it is ‘flawed’ but worth seeing nonetheless. Modern musicals Miss Saigon (due a major West End revival next year) and Rent are updated and edgier versions of Madama Butterfly and La bohème appear. La rondine is quite the reverse and is nothing more than Puccini’s rather tame twentieth-century ‘take’ on Verdi’s La traviata, the illness and death of its ‘heroine’ removed and hints of Die Fledermaus added.

It was in Vienna in 1913 that Puccini agreed to write something for the directors of the Carltheater. Although he quickly vetoed the idea of an operetta he then composed a lyric comedy that is an operetta in all by name, but missing the usual upbeat ending that is typical of the genre. In the version at Covent Garden (with the orchestration of Act II completed by Lorenzo Ferrero) it just grinds to a halt a bit unsatisfactorily. In fact there is another version with the scarlet woman Paulette (who is the courtesan Magda in disguise) walking into the sea at the end and drowning herself. Until his premature death Puccini was never happy with La rondine; he referred to it as his ‘dear, forgotten child’. There is much debate on this ‘operetta v opera’ issue but that presupposes something less ‘worthy’ about the former when compared to the latter and this is not the case. War intervened and the première could not be in Austria and was in Monte Carlo in 1917: the first Magda, Gilda dalla Rizza, was firmly in the ‘opera camp’ when interviewed in 1969 when she said: ‘It seems to an easy work, but it isn’t. This is not operetta, but a full-scale opera. Vocally, it is enormously difficult. The first act is every bit as challenging as the first act of La traviata, and the tenor role demands an artist of the calibre of Schipa.’

Perhaps it can best be compared with the sung-through musicals we are familiar with in the twenty-first century: think Claude-Michel Schönberg, Sondheim or Lloyd Webber, especially since the main theme Chi il beg sogno di Doretta that Prunier (a poet) and Magda sing during a soiree in Act I is over within the first 15 minutes of the evening and musically, the Act II paean to love (Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso) apart, it is all downhill from there. Puccini began writing music here again after many well-known personal crises but it is clear that he was still suffering a little from ‘composer’s block’.

The story is very slim indeed; in Paris, Magda, the mistress of Rambaldo a wealthy banker (a woeful underwritten part for Pietro Spagnoli) seeks true love and believes she finds it with Ruggero at Bullier’s (an upmarket Café Momus). Penniless but content they are living in a hotel on the Riviera; Rambaldo wants her back, but 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 the comic relief of a second amorous couple, Prunier and Lisette, the maid and aspiring singer, some disguises and a major case of mistaken identity – it is undoubtedly the stuff of most operettas. This latter pair are involved in one of the most mundane passages of music Puccini ever wrote as Lisette faffs around changing her clothes before herself going to Bullier’s. This, as well as, some of the waltz music in Act II makes Acts I and II drag somewhat before the more intimate moments when realisation dawns for Magda about where her future lies and begins to pull at the heartstrings. It was here that Ermonela Jaho (Magda) and Atalla Ayan (Ruggero) made the best of the rather perfunctory material and I am even sure Puccini might have been impressed too!

Ezio Frigerio’s colourful, extravagant set designs for Nicolas Joël’s production (revived here by Stephen Barlow) tend to dwarf the singers particularly in Acts I and II. This and Franca Squarciapino’s glamorous costumes place us clearly in the early twentieth-century at the end of La Belle Époque but I cannot determine whether we are in a Masonic Temple, a Museum or the elaborate foyer of a 5-star hotel for Magda’s solon with its stage deep Art Deco columns and hints of Klimt murals. It all opens up as an evocative backdrop to all the ebullience of Bullier’s. Then the pavilion on the Riviera in Act III to which Magda, like a bird, has ‘flown’ south with Ruggero is a sunlit room with aquamarine stained-glass windows overlooking … well, nothing actually and I would have liked to see the sea!

The conductor, Marco Armiliato, is a very experienced Puccinian and jollies things along whilst glossing over the longueurs in the score. He draws a supple – even subtle at times – performance from the orchestra. I was surprised how for a light romantic comedy how intricate some of the music was with much that is pentatonic and foreshadowing Turandot that was still to come. It was in the final scene of leave-taking when Puccini was clearly in the grip of that ‘composer’s block’ that his inspiration deserts him. An operetta composer of the first rank such as Lehár would have written a poignant duet of resignation to the inevitable: however Puccini has his characters mostly internalise their anguish and that gives us – in this version – a very unsatisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, thanks to the wonderfully committed and expressive performances of Ermonela Jaho (a planned replacement for Angela Gheorghiu in this revival) and Atalla Ayan (similarly replacing Charles Castronovo) this undercooked ending did not diminish La rondine’s appeal on the night. (Given the lukewarm reviews of the opening night we certainly seem to have got the better deal.)

As Magda, Jaho made a rather tentative start when her voice had not seemed to warm up but once it did there was some eloquent phrasing, exquisite pianissimos and much vocal heft when required. Her character came vividly to life with all her heart-on-her-sleeve emotional turmoil. There was considerable chemistry between her and Ayan’s Ruggero especially in Act III: his was a rather forthright breathy stentorian tenor at the beginning but he eventually found some pleasant warmth and melting lyricism. The Royal Opera showed strength in depth in the minor roles and fielded a strong ensemble. Sabina Puértolas sang a pert, eye-catching Lisette, Magda’s maid, and the rapport between Jaho and Puértolas seemed realistic. Edgaras Montvidas was an excellent Prunier, so good that I wondered how good he might be as Ruggero. He portrayed him faithfully as someone who believed that the deluded romantic love of his poems can never be equalled in real life. Prunier fails to make a chanteuse out of Lisette and their Act III moments are genuinely funny. Lisette goes back to being a maid, and Magda probably goes back to being Rambaldo’s companion and all’s well that just … ends!

Jim Pritchard

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