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Angela Gheorghiu as Magda [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
07 Jan 2009

La Rondine at the MET

The first thing that hits you about the Met’s production of La Rondine is the beauty of the sets and costumes (from the classy team of Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, respectively) — especially in contrast to the tawdry glitz of the recent Thaïs.

G. Puccini: La Rondine

Magda: Angela Gheorghiu; Lisette: Lisette Oropesa; Ruggero: Roberto Alagna; Prunier: Marius Brenciu. Conducted by Marco Armiliato. Metropolitan Opera. Performance of January 3.

Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Magda

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.

 

Someone spent money on this thing, which originated at Covent Garden. Gustav Klimt at his grandest has evidently muraled Magda’s intimate salon (probably while seducing Magda and her maid, if I know Gustav), the casual student café of Act II is suitable to some grand hotel on the Place Vendôme, and the Riviera inn where Ruggero and Magda hole up in Act III has become an art nouveau orangerie of stained glass grape arbor three stories high. Overproduction adds undeniable pleasure to the Met experience, however it may undercut the small-scale work at hand by raising expectations that will not be fulfilled.

La Rondine is often called Puccini’s Viennese operetta. The inspiration was, indeed, a Viennese libretto, set in sophisticated France, dealing with sophisticated emotions — none of its lovers would think of picking up a dagger or making a public scene; they’re not into “drama” — which is pretty funny for characters in a Puccini opera. A rich man’s elegant mistress feels restless, takes up with a young lover, realizes settling down with him to a bourgeois life is not her style, and returns — like the swallow of the title — to her nest. True love won’t keep you in Klimts or emeralds, honey. Regrets. The road not taken. No call for the undertaker or the priest.

The scale is intimate, the emotions internal, and the musical setting is intimate too, lilting and sensuous and utterly beguiling. (This is opera in the twentieth century?) It works sublimely on the small screen — my first experience of La Rondine was a television movie starring Teresa Stratas. Angela Gheorghiu compares well to Stratas as a beauty and as an actress (high compliments, these). I suspect her intimate looks and sighs will play even better in HDTV, and that her detailed acting was designed for Covent Garden, which is half the size of the Met. She had not warmed up properly to possess “Che il bel sogno di Doretta,” the opera’s one big aria, but that’s Puccini’s fault for putting it two minutes after curtain rise so he can go on recollecting it all evening. For the quartet in Act II and the love duet in Act III, Gheorghiu was more than prepared. It is not a voice of Tebaldi or Price size, but she has her own polished way with a Puccini phrase, and his bloom suits hers much better than, say, Donizetti, where (with fewer instruments to conceal her?) she can sound arch and stretched.

RONDINE_Alagna_Gheorghiu_67.pngAngela Gheorghiu as Magda and Roberto Alagna as Ruggero

Her partner is Roberto Alagna, of course, and they certainly play and sing lovers convincingly together. But Ruggero offers the tenor so little that you wonder why Gigli bothered with it — the standout tenor part is the secondo uomo, the poet Prunier, and here Marius Brenciu, in his first Met appearances, was light and suave with a very pleasing run up to head voice when called for. His amie of the night was Lisette Oropesa, a Met Young Artist alumna, who played Magda’s chirpy maid, having an affair with the poet, going for a big break in cabaret and, failing, returning to her old nest — no Adele audition for this gal. Oropesa has personality but her voice, on this brief exposure, did not. The quartet for the paired and (as we do not yet know) ill-fated lovers was delicious, and their story has that fragrant pessimism that afflicts late Lehar (whose librettists drafted this story too). Love excuses everything in Act I, but let’s be real — it always dissipates before the final curtain.

RONDINE_Brenciu_as_Prunier_.pngMarius Brenciu as Prunier

What the world wants now is a new Puccini opera. La Rondine is not new, of course, but the brand is right, and it’s never been popular, so it’s ripe for discovery. Singers of Magda and Ruggero need fear no comparison with the interpretations of Callas and Pavarotti, because they never sang it, and hardly anyone alive remembers Bori or Gigli. The opera contains little familiar music — though, in a sense, all of it is familiar — aside from “Il sogno di Doretta,” which no lyric soprano worth her salt can resist. (When Gheorghiu sings it, it is difficult not to sigh for Leontyne Price, but she had time to warm up, as she never sang the entire opera.)

No one living is going to write two hours of new Puccini (though heaven knows Andrew Lloyd-Webber and several movie composers would if they could), and that is really what the new audience discovering opera (and eagerly courted by Peter Gelb) wants: a Puccini opera to discover for themselves. There have even been productions of Edgar, which hasn’t even got a great showpiece tune to commend itself. My advice to opera companies courting this crowd is the great number of neglected but lovely works by Puccini’s contemporaries and rivals, just waiting for the right singers and a production like this one. Okay, there are howlers like Francesca da Rimini or Sly or Cyrano, which even a Scotto or a Domingo couldn’t save, but there are also fascinating scores like Cristoforo Colombo (Franchetti), Cassandra (Gnecchi), La Fiamma (Respighi), L’Oracolo (Leoni), Il Piccolo Marat (Mascagni), L’Amore dei Tre Re (Montemezzi). Take a chance. (It would help if there were a proper verismo soprano around to sing them, I grant you — no, I can’t think of one either.)

RONDINE_scene_3422a.pngLisette Oropesa as Lisette (foreground) in a scene from Act I

But I never leave La Rondine, even a performance as glamorous and charming as this one, without feeling unsatisfied, shortchanged — as if there has not been enough feeling, enough melodious anguish, as if the company should complete the evening somehow, with Il Tabarro, say, or scenes from Tosca or Manon Lescaut — something to fulfill the expectations raised by Puccinian melody from the very first chord.

La Rondine is an appetizer, or tapas perhaps — it’s not a full entrée, never mind dessert.

John Yohalem

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