Puccini’s La Rondine: Zurich Opera polishes a rare gem

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Puccini, La Rondine: Soloists, Extras Association of Zurich Opera, Choir of Zurich Opera (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Philharmonia Zurich / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Zurich Opera, 17.9.2023. (MF)

Benjamin Bernheim (Ruggero) and Ermonela Jaho (Magda) © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Christoph Loy
Set – Etienne Plus
Costumes – Barbara Drosihn
Lighting – Fabrice Kébour
Choreography – Thomas Wilhelm
Dramaturgy – Kathrin Brunner

Magda – Ermonela Jaho
Lisette – Sandra Hamaoui
Ruggero – Benjamin Bernheim
Prunier – Juan Francisco Gatell
Rambaldo – Vladimir Stoyanov
Périchaud – Andrew Moore
Gobin / a youngster / Adolfo – Nathan Haller
Crébillon – Stanislav Vorobyov
Yvette / Georgette – Yuliia Zasimova
Bianca / Gabriella – Meeta Raval
Suzy / Lolette – Siena Licht Miller
Butler – Valeriy Murga
Rabonnier – Amin Ahangaran
Waitress – Annabelle Kern
Waiter– Yannick Bosc

Tragedy can hit even harder when not climaxing in death. Whereas the protagonist of La Rondine, Magda de Civry, like Violetta in La traviata, had to rely on her physical traits to gain access to Paris’s societal upper echelons, she is denied the mercy of perishing in grace and forced to live on after her romantic dreams are shattered.

Magda lives in Paris, kept by Rambaldo, a man of wealth and taste. During a party, a song by the poet Prunier rekindles Magda’s remembrance of a long-gone love affair with an unknown student. Prunier goes on to predict Magda a future as a swallow – the Rondine of the title – destined to take off across the seas before returning. Cue provincial beau Ruggero Lastouc entering the stage. He is immediately sent off to Café Bullier to acquaint himself with the capital’s famed nightlife. There, Ruggero meets Magda who imagines an escape from her courtesan life, chasing her true-love fantasy. She leaves wealthy Rambaldo and moves to the Riviera with youngling Ruggero. Alas, happiness is short-lived. While Ruggero visualises a petty bourgeois family happiness, even gaining his mother’s blessing to marry the righteous one, Magda faces the harshness of reality by revealing her past and despairs while sending the youngster back to his family.

‘An operetta? Never!’ So Giacomo Puccini, then aged 56, reportedly dismissed the invitation to compose a lighter piece for the Vienna Carltheater in 1914. Quite possibly, the handsome recompense of a sum equivalent to one million euro in today’s terms may have contributed to bringing the composer round. An original version of the initially German libretto by Franz Lehár’s writers Alfred Willner and Heinz Reichert underwent repeated reworking, until Puccini settled on the Italian version by Giuseppe Adami who would later author the text for Turandot. Ultimately, La Rondine premiered 1917, in the midst of World War I. Not in Vienna as intended but at politically neutral Opera Monte Carlo.

Zurich Opera’s staging is a Swiss premiere of this little-known work. Director Christof Loy, who had proposed Rondine to Andreas Homoki, adopts a thoroughly psychological approach. He eschews gimmicky posing in favour of developing the story’s essence and affording the superb cast plenty of breathing room to inspire the characters’ emotions with ebullient life, light humour and intense drama. Methodical simplicity coupled with utter precision in representation are used to maximum effect. At times, the images have a film-like quality.

Loy’s directing is congenially supported by set (Etienne Plus) and light (Fabrice Kébour). The austere, not to say stodgy, rooms provide the canvas for the action to unfold. The lighting is unassuming in the best of ways, creating natural and authentic spaces. The costumes (Barbara Drosihn) emphasise the ladies in various 1950s shapes and vibrant colours. On the other hand, the male main cast is mostly left with nondescript office wear, the evening’s only not immediately obvious choice. Sartorially, we are compensated in the second act’s highly animated mass-scene by the choir (in the usual manner fantastically prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger) and the dancing of four couples who inject abundant motion and dynamics – including some male chromaticity.

Christoph Loy’s La Rondine for Zurich Opera © Monika Rittershaus

The spectacular cast renders a performance at vaut le voyage level. No less than fourteen named characters convince as a universally strong ensemble, whereby one might mention in particular Vladimir Stoyanov as Rambaldo, Andrew Moore as Périchaud and in the smaller roles Siena Licht Miller, Amin Ahangaran and in particular also Annabelle Kern as enchanting waitress.

Centre stage belongs to the two couples, however. On the one hand doomed Magda (Ermonela Jaho) and Ruggiero (Benjamin Bernheim). They are complemented by ever bickering but nonetheless well-meaning Lisette, Magda’s maid (Sandra Hamaoui) and poet Prunier (Juan Franciso Gatell). Gatell is an engaging and versatile poet, entertainer and libertine of fetching comedic talent. French-American soprano Hamaoui enthuses as cockily charming Lisette, a strong character with matching voice and sprightly performance. Bernheim – last season in Zurich in the role of another hapless lover, Romeo – enthuses with the full range of his crisp strong timbre as he touchingly renders the juvenile provincial overstrained by the French capital’s offerings and his senior lover’s emotional rollercoaster.

The evening’s supernova, though, is Albanian soprano Jaho. A quite simply mind-blowing Magda. Jaho takes a deep dive into her tragic character, her voice oscillating between Lied recital-gentleness expressing deep longing and forceful strength, only to burst into boundless drama moments later. Ending the evening on a sigh of desperation, turned towards the audience in a lost gaze, Jaho is still visibly shaken during the first curtain call.

Had it always been Marco Armiliato conducting La Rondine, that opera would not have fallen between the cracks of history. Under his baton, we are treated to a precise, agile, finely modulated and well-balanced glorious musical evening. The score combines lighter conversational operetta style elements, albeit no spoken recitatives, with highly operatic moments and includes dance rhythms, spanning Foxtrot, Tango and waltzes, among others. From today’s perspective, one is repeatedly reminded of film scores. These various aspects are all developed and held together by Armiliato’s formidable by heart conducting. Philharmonia Zurich is once more in grand shape, impressing with atmospheric strings and a poignant brass section.

The premiere audience was thrilled, breaking into rapturous applause at final curtains and even rhythm clapping for an encore – which in the end did not happen – after the second act’s overwhelming tutti scene. Puccini called La Rondine a ‘problem child’ work. This production richly rewards Zurich Opera’s courage to put it on. Bravi!

Michael Fischer

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