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La rondine [image courtesy of Opera Holland Park]
12 Jul 2011

La rondine, Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park’s unique selling point has always been a devotion to the more obscure works of Puccini and his Italian contemporaries.

Giacomo Puccini: La rondine

Magda: Kate Ladner; Ruggero: Seán Ruane; Lisette: Hye Youn Lee; Prunier: Hal Cazalet; Rambaldo: Nicholas Todorovic; Perichaud: Henry Grant Kerswell; Crebillion/Rabonier: Maciek O’Shea; Gobin: Patrick Mundy; Bianca/Gabriela: Sarah Minns; Suzy/Lolette: Olivia Ray; Yvette/Georgette: Stephanie Bodsworth; Una voce interno: Anna Patalong; Il Maggiordomo: Geoffrey Thompson. Opera Holland Park Chorus. City of London Sinfonia. Conductor: Peter Selwyn. Director: Tom Hawkes. . Designer: Peter Rice. Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell. Choreographer: Jenny Weston. Opera Holland Park, July 2011.

Above: La rondine [image courtesy of Opera Holland Park]


Last time OHP staged La rondine it still fell into this category, and until that year, there had been no London staging of the piece for decades. But the gorgeous, star-studded EMI recording of 1996 had revived interest in the piece, and in 2002 the Royal Opera (with the Magda and Ruggero of the EMI set, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna) mounted its first-ever Rondine, pipping OHP to the post by a matter of weeks. Despite the fact that the ROH production must have been in the pipeline for a while, the timing seemed almost impolite.

At every turn of La rondine there is a reminder of Puccini’s earlier work; the pentatonicism of Butterfly, the dreamy end-of-act exits of Bohème (La rondine goes so far as to end every act with one), the bustling ensembles of Manon Lescaut. And the tenor aria in the middle of Act 1, ‘Parigi’, sounds like an afterthought inspired by ‘Firenze’ from the later Gianni Schicchi — which, of course, is exactly what it is, having not been part of the original score. But somehow La rondine still manages to be unique among Puccini’s output, a drama with comic episodes that has a flavour all of its own.

Nine years after that pair of London stagings, this lovely piece has managed to maintain... well, perhaps not a firm foothold in the repertoire, but certainly a presence. There has been a revival of the Covent Garden production, and a staging by British Youth Opera. Now it is back at Holland Park in a brand-new staging, no longer one of the season’s novelty pieces but a tried and tested crowd-pleaser. It says much in its favour that the entire run is sold out.

Tom Hawkes’s production updates the action to around the time of the opera’s composition — it premiered in 1917, under the shadow of World War 1. Designer Peter Rice transforms the stage with an elegant arc of Rennie Mackintosh-inspired metalwork which acts as the uniting factor for all three scenes of the opera. Each act has its own colour scheme; Magda’s chic soirée is mostly muted pastels and silver, while much of the clientèle of Bullier’s bar is edgy monochrome with bold-coloured accents. Both of these situations provide a backdrop for Magda to stand out from the crowd in a contrasting palette of colours — her almost regal gown of crimson velvet gives way to a simple blue dress for her night out. Truth be told, this misfired somewhat — my first thought was of Tosca disguising herself as Micaela from Carmen! - but the point became clear in Act 3 when everything, including Magda, was in white. It is made very clear that until Ruggero inadvertently rocks the boat by proposing marriage, this is where Magda finds a sense of comfort and belonging.

As Magda (the ‘swallow’ of the title), the Australian soprano Kate Ladner was glamorous, feminine and self-assured — she would have been a head-turner even without the stand-out costumes. Her poised and voluptuous soprano was perfect for ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’, the small-talk of Act 1 and the intimate duet scenes. She was well-matched by Seán Ruane as Ruggero, convincingly youthful and with a refreshing tenderness to his tone. The one thing both initially lacked was abandon — both Magda’s outburst of longing for romantic adventure at the end of her second aria and the lovers’ cries of ‘Dolcezza! Ebrezza! Incanto! Sogno!’ in the middle of the Act 2 waltz sounded far too safe. Happily, they found the extra reserve of expansive lyricism in time for the impassioned heart-searching of Act 3.

Hal Cazalet’s light tenor was ideal for Prunier the poet; as the salon raconteur of Act 1 his gift for natural and conversational delivery of sung dialogue really came into its own. He and Hye Youn Lee’s good-natured, vivacious Lisette made a natural and likeable couple.

The group scenes really felt relaxed and natural thanks to the detailed direction of an array of contrasting and credible characters, and a classy ensemble comprised mainly of OHP regulars. Stephanie Bodsworth, Sarah Minns and Olivia Ray were as lively, sparkling and characterful as the three grisettes in Act 2 as they had been as Magda’s guests in Act 1. Nicholas Todorovic (Kate Ladner’s real-life husband) was a gruff, proud Rambaldo, and there was a very impressive turn from the young soprano Anna Patalong as the unnamed voice whose mysterious solo at the end of Act 2 warns of the fickleness of love. The OHP chorus, too, were on fine form.

In the pit, Peter Selwyn and the City of London Sinfonia succeeded in capturing the delicate colours of the score — Viennese melodic sentiment couched in a rich, Italianate and recognisably Puccinian idiom. At times I felt Selwyn could have been a little more attentive to the singers (at one point in Magda’s second aria, Ladner had to make an adjustment for having been left behind by the accompaniment) but it was a pleasure to listen to, always well-balanced.

For rarity value, go and see La Wally later this month. For high drama, catch Rigoletto. But for melody, elegance, lovely singing and fine ensemble work, this Rondine has all that Holland Park is best at, and all I could have asked of it.

Ruth Elleson © 2011

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