Redemption at the Met for Puccini’s flawed La rondine from Gheorghiu, Alagna and Oropesa

United StatesUnited States Puccini, La rondine: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Performance from 10.1.2009 and reviewed as a Nightly Met Opera Stream on 16.4.2020. (JPr)

Lisette Oropesa, Marius Brenciu, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu
in La rondine (c) Metropolitan Opera


Production – Nicolas Joël
Stage director – Stephen Barlow
Set designer – Ezio Frigerio
Costume designer – Franca Squarciapino
Lighting designer – Duane Schuler

Cast included:

Magda – Angela Gheorghiu
Ruggero – Roberto Alagna
Lisette – Lisette Oropesa
Prunier – Marius Brenciu
Rambaldo – Samuel Ramey
Yvette – Monica Yunus
Bianca – Alyson Cambridge
Suzy – Elizabeth DeShong

Live in HD Director – Brian Large
Live in HD Host – Renée Fleming

If the modern musicals Miss Saigon and Rent are edgier versions of Madama Butterfly and La bohème, then La rondine is a very anodyne, mostly saccharine, ultimately downbeat, early twentieth century ‘take’ on Verdi’s La traviata … without any coughing, tuberculosis, or death, whilst adding elements from Die Fledermaus! There is no established final version of La rondine, Puccini died prematurely in 1924 without ever being entirely happy with it having made frequent revisions which resulted in the three versions he left us (1917, 1920, 1921). There are at least two completely different endings and, as a result, no definitive La rondine.

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 (at least in parts) that is an operetta in all but name though missing the usual happy resolution that is typical of the genre. In the version at Met with the Act II orchestration completed by Lorenzo Ferrero it just grinds to a halt a bit unsatisfactorily. The First World War delayed the premiere of La rondine which could no longer 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 be an easy work, but it isn’t … 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.’ I have heard La rondine only twice before as it is not often performed. In fact, when Nicolas Joël’s production was first put on at the end of the previous month it was the first staging at the Metropolitan Opera since 1936.

The story is indeed very slim: in Paris, Magda – who is the mistress of wealthy banker Rambaldo – seeks true love and believes she finds it with respectable young Ruggero at Bullier’s (an upmarket Café Momus). Penniless but content they are living in a hotel on the Riviera, Rambaldo (a woefully underwritten part for veteran Samuel Ramey) wants her back while Ruggero wants to marry her. She has a notorious past and is not the ‘good, pure, and gentle’ woman Ruggero’s conservative mother would want for her son or as the mother of her grandchildren. So – like a swallow (rondine) – she flies back to her protector’s arms.

Add in an over-written second amorous couple, the poet Prunier and Lisette, the maid and aspiring singer, some disguises, as well as, a major case of mistaken identity – and it is indeed 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 was only redeemed by an appealingly quixotic, amusing, and high-spirited performance from Lisette Oropesa in one of this – increasingly impressive – soprano’s earliest Met appearances. Without her strong performance I would urge cuts here and in some of the second act’s dance music, to make for an even shorter work which is all this slight material warrants. It is only in the more intimate moments – as realisation dawns for Magda about where her future lies – that La rondine begins to pull at the heartstrings. It was here that Angela Gheorghiu (Magda) and Roberto Alagna (Ruggero) made the best of some rather perfunctory music and I’m sure even Puccini would have been impressed!

Ezio Frigerio’s elegant set designs garner the almost obligatory applause from the Met audience and contribute to this production’s charm. For Magda’s Parisian salon we are sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century and see the influence of the Art Deco movement in the square columns, furnishings, as well as, Franca Squarciapino’s costumes. Also, there are gilded Klimt-like murals covering the back wall. It all opens up as an evocative backdrop to all the ebullience of Bullier’s. The Act III hotel to which Magda flees with Ruggero has a sun-bleached terrace behind the aquamarine foliage on the stained-glass panelling.

As heard in this Live in HD recording the conductor Marco Armiliato – who is a very experienced Puccinian – drew a fine sounding performance from his Met orchestra, jollied things along, and attempted to gloss over the longueurs in the score. The big chorus have their only ensemble moment in Act II and seemed to revel in it making an impressive sound. I was surprised once more how occasionally intricate – for such a romantic melodrama – some of the music was with pentatonic passages that foreshadow Turandot that was still to come. For some reason thoughts of Andrew Lloyd Webber repeatedly came to mind. Especially since Magda’s main aria ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ – which she sings with Prunier during an Act I soiree – is dispensed with during the first 15 minutes of the opera and musically it distinctly goes downhill from there. It is during the final scene of leave-taking – when Puccini was clearly in the grip of ‘composer’s block’ – that his inspiration deserted 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 rather unsatisfactory conclusion. Nevertheless, thanks to the wonderfully committed and expressive performances of Gheorghiu and Alagna this undercooked ending did not diminish La rondine’s appeal on this occasion.

As Magda, Angela Gheorghiu was perhaps not entirely at her ease during the ‘challenging’ first act, but her trademark eloquent phrasing, refined pianissimos, and requisite vocal heft was much in evidence. Her character came vividly to life with all the heart-on-her-sleeve emotional turmoil of the final act rather than in the giddiness of burgeoning passion. There was considerable chemistry between her and Roberto Alagna’s Ruggero especially in Act III and this is not surprising as they had been married for several years in 2009 and only divorced in 2013. Alagna’s tenor voice was very virile and forthright throughout, with some pleasant warmth, melting lyricism, and nearly unhinged fervour, as required.

Rambaldo seemed a woefully underwritten part for veteran Samuel Ramey. I have already mentioned Lisette Oropesa’s pert, eye-catching performance as Magda’s maid and the rapport between her and Gheorghiu was believable. Marius Brenciu was an outstanding Prunier who was portrayed as someone who truly believed that the deluded romantic love of his poems could never be achieved in real life. (Weirdly we hear the poet refer to love as ‘an airborne germ that takes the defenceless heart by surprise’ and this has, sadly, another meaning in 2020!) Prunier fails to make a chanteuse out of Lisette (saying ‘A star was born and died on the same night’) and their Act III moments are genuinely funny. Lisette goes back to being a maid and Magda returns to being a kept woman and all’s well that just … ends!

Footnote: during the curtain calls Alagna playfully pats Gheorghiu on her backside as she goes out front to acknowledge her applause. Current #MeToo sensibilities might have dire consequences for anyone doing something similar today unless they are married like they were!

Jim Pritchard

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