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Giacomo Puccini: La Rondine
08 Mar 2010

Puccini: La Rondine

Throughout his relatively long and decidedly successful career, Giacomo Puccini returned to those operas of his that had not, immediately or eventually, secured an important place in the standard repertory.

Giacomo Puccini: La Rondine

Magda: Svetla Vassileva; Lisette: Maya Dashuk; Ruggero: Fabio Sartori; Prunier: Emanuele Giannino; Rambaldo: Marzio Giossi; Périchaud: Fernando Ciuffo; Gobin: Giorgio Berrugi; Crébillon: Andrea Patucelli; Yvette: Polina Volfson; Bianca: Alessandra Meozzi; Suzy: Annunziata Vestri; Fleury: Katia De Sarlo; Mariette: Chang Chiung Wen; Roro: Elisabetta Lombardo; Un maggiordomo: Alessando Manghesi. Puccini Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Alberto Veronesi, conductor. Recorded live from the 53rd Puccini Festival, Torre del Lago, Italy, on 8, 10 and 16 August 2007.

Naxos 2.110266 [DVD]

$29.49  Click to buy

In blunter terms — his failures. He never got Edgar into any kind of shape to save it from obscurity, although the Puccini name still managed to get the opera recorded a time or two, and a recent “discovery” of some alternative material led to a production, available on DVD, with Jose Cura in the lead. With La Rondine, the “Traviata-lite” story of a pampered, kept woman (Magda) and her sad attempt at finding true love with a young man rich in good looks but poor in dollars, the gorgeous music Puccini composed has gotten the opera a fair amount of attention. As an alternative to another round of the master’s ubiquitous La Boheme, there’s a refreshing aspect to La Rondine. Nevertheless, a production that can truly make the opera’s narrative work has not appeared (except possibly to those besotted, understandably so, with the beauty of the score). An opera should build to its final act; La Rondine collapses as that point. The title character’s love interest, Ruggero, is so one-dimensional that he makes Traviata’s Alfredo seem like Hamlet, and the decision Magda makes when she realizes her past will always thwart their happiness (the “swallow” flies away) comes off as unmotivated or irrational.

Interestingly, for the 1998 Washington National Opera performance that Decca offers on DVD, director Marta Domingo opted for a later revision where Puccini thought a tragic ending would make the third act viable. Here, Magda not only realizes her past will obliterate any chance for happiness, not just this one with Ruggero, and so at opera’s end she walks into the sea (here a cloud of fog) to end it all. In Michael Scott’s lovely seaside cottage setting, the scene plays effectively in itself, but still feels like no resolution to the story and characters of the much lighter first two acts. The odd mix of the libretto is reflected in the names of the librettists: Dr. A. M. Willner, Heinz Reichert, and Giuseppe Adami. Three librettists walk into an EU bar, the joke might begin.

Domingo’s direction of the first two acts gets too busy at times — all the supers in the second act cafe scene make too much noise during lighter scored music — but she has an attractive cast. Inva Mula’s career now takes her to main stages (more in Europe, perhaps) and major roles; here she sings Lisette, a light role in a light opera, and Mula charms. As her poet boyfriend, Richard Troxell gets to camp it up a bit, and thankfully he knows not to let that get annoying. Ruggero is a good role for Marcus Haddock. He is not a tenor who brings much dramatic face to any performance anyway, so the role of a callow, smitten rube doesn’t tax him. The voice remains able but unmemorable.

Ainhoa Arteta’s Magda makes this a Rondine that flies above the competition. Her tone remains feminine in the more challenging moments — especially the tricky high notes of Doretta’s song, which need float — and in the conversational sections, her complete assumption of the character shines through. When Arteta takes center stage, Puccini’s inspiration matches his craftsmanship. Elsewhere, more than in any of his other operas, a sense of the great composer operating on auto-pilot can’t be evaded. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume treats both the lesser and greater parts of the score with great taste and care.

The booklet essay in the Naxos DVD of the 2007 Puccini festival staging blandly states that this is “yet another version” of the opera. Here, Ruggero rejects Magda at the end, leaving her devastated. Surely Puccini considered this option in an attempt to make Ruggero minimally interesting, and just as surely he rejected it because it goes against the concept of Magda as “swallow,” light and mobile. Director Lorenzo Amato’s solution to that problem is to bring a giant bird cage on at the end. Get it? But just in case the viewer needs more help, on a rear screen a sketch of a bird skull is projected (sets and costumes are by Nall).

Domingo’s staging for Washington maybe be too pretty for some, but anyone looking for ugliness in a Rondine production should be fully satisfied by Amato and Nall’s efforts. Unfortunately, the singing offers little beauty in compensation. Soprano Svetla Vassileva has too heavy and dark a voice for Magda. Fabio Sartori also has more voice than he needs as Ruggero; if it were a more attractive instrument, viewers might be able to overlook the fact that Sartori — a hefty, plain man — isn’t very convincing as a country lad who turns the head of a high class Parisian courtesan. Maya Dashuk as Lisette makes the best impression of the rest of the cast. In fact, the designer of the packaging apparently thought the blond and attractive Dashuk was the star, as her portrait appears on the front cover, not Vassileva’s. Alberto Veronesi leads the Puccini festival forces in an efficient performance, though perhaps recorded a bit loud and thus harsh hearing at times.

Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera’s HD moviecast with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna will come to DVD — that would be strong competition for the Washington Opera set. The Naxos is recommended only for the morbidly inclined.

Chris Mullins

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