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by Michael Portantiere

A Great, Big Swallow of Puccini

  • Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in LA RONDINE; photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

    A Great, Big Swallow of Puccini

    Why Puccini's La Rondine has not yet joined the standard operatic repertoire is a mystery. The public's deserved adoration of Puccini as a supremely gifted composer and musical dramatist has grown to the point where even such once-rarely-heard works as Turandot, Il Trittico, and La Fanciulla del West have long since become frequent occupants of opera house stages all over the world. Yet Rondine has lagged behind, and the reason usually given for its relative lack of popularity is that its plot is close in some respects to that of Verdi's La Traviata, with a few elements of Puccini's own Bohème thrown in.

    The English translation of the opera's title is "The Swallow" -- not as in the process by which food or drink is passed from the mouth through the esophagus and into the stomach, but as in one of those birds that fly south for the winter. Magda, a Parisian courtesan, lives in comfort and elegance at the behest of her older protector until she falls in love with a young man named Ruggero and goes off with him to begin a new life outside of the city.

    That's where the resemblance to Traviata ends. In the Verdi opera, the heroine leaves her young lover at the behest of his moralistic father, and soon dies of consumption; in the Puccini, Magda herself regretfully chooses to return, like a swallow, to the the life she had previously known. This major difference lends the work a distinctly modern sensibility that bodes well for its belated addition to the roster of works regularly presented by the Met and other companies.

    The music and orchestrations of Rondine are gorgeous, but the opera does have some oddities of construction which, depending on your point of view, either mar it or make it all the more intriguing. For example: In Act I, Ruggero attends a party at Magda's home, but according to the libretto, she isn't introduced to him there. It's not until the subsequent act, set in a dance hall, that they actually meet -- and it's unclear whether either of them recognizes the other from the party. Also, the breakdown of the opera's principal roles (leading soprano and tenor, secondary soprano and tenor, and bass/baritone) is unusual. And Rondine has got to be the only opera ever written in which another character sings the soprano's first, big aria right before she sings it -- almost in its entirely, though without the high notes.

    These oddities, plus the plot's general similarity to that of Traviata, probably acccount for the fact that the opera has thus far received only four complete studio recordings as compared to five or six times that many for Puccini's biggest hits. In recent years, Rondine has been championed by the husband-and-wife team of soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Robert Alagna; they starred in the most recent recording and are headlining the beautiful new production now on view at the Metropolitan Opera, a co-production with the Theatre du Capitole, Toulouse and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

    For this go-around, Nicolas Joël has moved the action forward from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, allowing for wonderful art-deco sets by Ezio Frigerio and fabulous costumes by Franca Squarciapino. Joel's direction is sensitive, intelligent, and sometimes innovative, as in his decision to have Magda's sugar daddy, Rambaldo, make a silent appearance in the final moments of the opera. The only questionable element of this production is the violent apache dance in Act II, which fits neither the music to which it's set (a waltz) nor the general tone of the piece.

    Gheorghiu and Alagna make beautiful music together in every sense of that expression. Their voices are lovely and, except for an occasional lack of projection in her middle-to-lower register and some effortful high notes on his part, technically perfect -- though I did notice that both sometimes tended to rush slightly ahead of the orchestra at the opening performance, perhaps due to nervousness.

    Marius Brenciu (in his Met debut) and Lisette Oropesa bring first-rate voices to the supporting roles of the poet Prunier and Magda's maid, Lisette. (What are the chances than a performer and her role would both be named Lisette? Not great, I'd say, but here you have it!) Bass Samuel Ramey lends Rambaldo an authority which partly compensates for the wobble affecting the singer's voice at this late stage in his career. Conductor Marco Armiliato ekes glorious sounds from the Met orchestra without ever making Puccini's sumptuous score sound schmaltzy.

    In sum, this Rondine is a triumph for everyone involved. Look for the opera to reappear in many an upcoming Met season.

    Published on Monday, January 5, 2009

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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