United Kingdom Puccini, La Rondine (sung in Italian: first version, with interpolated first act Romanza): Cast and Chorus of Holland Park Opera; City of London Sinfonia / Matthew Kofi Waldren. Holland Park, London, 1.6.2017. (CC)
Magda – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Ruggero – Matteo Lippi
Lisette – Tereza Gevorgyan
Prunier – Stephen Aviss
Rambaldo – David Stephenson
Périchauld – Henry Grant Kerswell
Gobin – Timothy Langston
Crébillon/Rabonnier – Alistair Sutherland
Yvette/Georgette – Pia Harris
Bianca/Gabriela – Alice Privett
Suzy/Lolette – Sophie Dicks
Voce di sopranino – Alys Roberts
Un Maggiordomo – Jon Shaw
Director – Martin Lloyd-Evans
Designer – takis
Lighting Designer – Mark Howland
Movement Director – Steve Elias
First performed exactly a century ago, Puccini’s La Rondine has seldom been accorded its due. Perhaps it is its status as somewhere between opera and operetta that is the problem, with its emphasis on waltzes and its final act denouement that leaves one feeling rather short-changed. Yet Opera Holland Park clearly believes in it: this is its third outing in Kensington (2017 provides a fresh production), while ENO, WNO and Scottish Opera have yet to stage it. The plot of the star-cross’d lovers has echoes of Traviata, with the heroine courtesan lighting on deeper emotions while in a dance hall/nightclub, Bullier’s. The music’s emphasis on waltz at one point may point towards the lighter genre, but there are deeper things at stake here. The primary couple of Magda and Ruggero is balanced out by the lighter coupling of Magda’s maid Lisette and the musician, Prunier.
Egged on by the atmospheric sounds of Holland Park (myriad birdsong and some peacocks in fine voice providing an obbligato counterpoint to the final act), the scene was set for an exciting evening away from the Puccinian heartlands of Bohème and its brethren. Mark Valencia memorably sums up the early reception of the opera in Holland Park’s characteristically lavish booklet (more coffee table book) as seeing the work as “Traviata-lite that ends at around Verdi’s halfway point”. And it easy to see why this happened; also, as is the case with Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles, the big number is over way early in the opera (“Ch’il bel sogno do Doretta,” the one that features the piano as lead-in). The interval comes after the second act, and act three in fairness seems overly terse and dramatically unsatisfying given the machinations of the first two acts (in fairness, Puccini struggles with the conclusion). Rolando Villazón, acting as stage director at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin for their staging immortalised on Delos DVD/Bluray, has referred to Rondine as a “conversation piece” and it is easy to see his point. There is no succession of hits in the manner of Bohème or Tosca. One has to admit patches where Puccini’s invention seems to flag in comparison to the glorious outpourings of those more famous works; yet when given with this amount of enthusiasm, the results are never less than fascinating.
Also, the orchestration is magnificent and all credit to Matthew Kofi Waldren for coaxing the orchestra to its best. The odd moment of scrawny strings aside, the evening was a triumph. Dance rhythms were infectious; elsewhere, one heard a level of detail one might have considered unlikely given the quasi-outdoors setting. Without doubt, Puccini’s orchestration is as sophisticated as his writing for voices, especially his calibrated way of writing in the final act, matching music to drama impeccably. A special mention, too, for the leader, Martin Burgess and his various solos, all magical.
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans sets the piece in the 1950s, and hats off to the Greek designer takis (one name only, lower case first letter, very trendy): pastel shades prevail in act one, while the transformation to the dance hall of the second act is achieved via a miracle of a team effort, now dominated by strong reds (mirrored in Magda’s red top against her leather jacket and jeans). Act three, set ostensibly on the Côte d’Azur, finds the Holland Park stage believably transformed into the outside of a hotel, with fallen leaves perhaps indicating the autumn of one period of life before it moves to another. Disco/nightclub dancing in opera is always a bit suspect, and the dances here looked a touch awkward.
The Chorus of Opera Holland Park was in fabulous voice throughout. The soloists were led by, and effectively overshadowed by, Elizabeth Llewellyn, who made her operatic debut as Mimì in Bohème at ENO in 2010; she returned there as Countess Figaro and Micaëla Carmen. Elsewhere she has taken on Elsa Lohengrin (Magdeburg), Governess (Turn of the Screw, Arcola Theatre) and Bess (Royal Danish Opera). She was thrilling, living the role throughout and with full vocal and dynamic range. In act three, Llewellyn and the orchestra conspired to provide moments of magic in her soliloquy as she reminisces; her pitching, too, was noteworthy in its accuracy. Magda’s love scene with Ruggero was one of the evening’s many highlights; she effectively lifted it to another level. True, Genoese singer Matteo Lippi was ardent at that point, but he was not of the same level as Llewellyn over the course of the evening, either in terms of acting or vocally. Making his OHP debut, Lippi has recently sang Pinkerton at Glyndebourne. A student (to this day) of Mirella Freni, clearly has potential; one wonders if as the run continues he can raise his game.
Tereza Gevorgyan’s Lisette seemed like Puccini’s answer to Despina, decidedly pert but lacking a Don Alfonso. Deliciously sung and acted, this was a wonderful OHP debut. She combines stage presence well in excess of her size with complete immersion in her role; Steven Aviss was a good if not outstanding Prunier. Again, the female of the pairings outshone the male.
Lesser roles were well taken, although the Rambaldo of David Stephenson was a touch weak. But it is difficult to imagine a finer opener to the 2017 Opera Holland Park season. Difficult to believe it’s that time of the year already.