FilmNew YorkOperaReview

Met Opera Live: La Rondine

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Music: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Giuseppe Adami

Production: Nicholas Joël

Conductor: Speranza Scappucci

The least well-known of Puccini’s operas is given a revival by The Met who claim its “scandalous” absence from the popular repertoire is due to a misfortune of timing. With Italy and Austria becoming enemies in the midst of The First World War, a Viennese premiere wasn’t possible, forestalling the kind of popularity achieved by Puccini’s earlier works. Furthermore, the lack of any well-known singalong tunes and the often low-octane plot make this a challenging prospect for the opera newbie but this lavish production has much to savour.

Picturehouse’s Met Opera Live series is a convenient way to experience contemporary operatic performances. You don’t have to fly to New York, the ticket prices are affordable, and you get little added behind-the-scene extras. When the curtain falls between acts, we see cinematic panning shots of an army of stagehands rearranging the set. Then in the intermission, we see interviews with members of the cast. Our host talks first to Angel Blue, who plays the starring role of Magda, the courtesan whose love life is in crisis. In answer to one of the questions, Blue lets slip that she doesn’t see this as Puccini’s best work. It’s almost an apology, a caveat, and it puts the audience in a slightly uncomfortable position. We wonder if this means the cast was not able to throw themselves as fully into their performances.

Puccini’s score often seems stuck in sentimentality. The first two acts deal with the ideas of love and the music often evokes a conception of romance verging on the anodyne, more Last of the Summer Wine than Carmen. And Bizet’s fiery heroine provides a comparison that leaves Magda appearing rather tame, the arias slightly flat and vanilla. La Rondine, however, in many ways shows its strengths in its mundanity. The plot is simple, beginning at a party put on by Magda, the kept lady of banker Rambaldo. Though this life of riches and leisure is working for her, Rambaldo’s transactional conception of love is not quite in line with her more romantic ideals. Finishing poet Prunier’s stalled love song for him, she outlines what she thinks love should be like in the opera’s most famous aria “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”.

This aria spotlight’s Blue’s astounding vocal control. The long, high notes act as a showcase for her resonant tone and vibrato. Her voice is like an engine purring, so regular and precise a bit more grit and strain may have actually been welcome. This Magda has a shyness to her. She’s only able to really express her feelings about love through the fictional Doretta. Prunier reads her palm and tells her she is a swallow (the “rondine” of the title) – essentially, she’s feeling the need to migrate. And this is what happens as she goes off to a bar in disguise and meets the captivating Ruggero, who had just been at the party. As people dance around them and the drinks flow, they fall in love, and Magda sees before her the opportunity for the kind of spontaneous passion she desires.

The spectacular set, designed by Ezio Frigerio, places the opera in 1920s Paris for the first two acts going from the shimmering art deco glamour of the party to the rowdy atmosphere of Bullier’s bar. The costumes (Franca Squarciapino) are dazzling, featuring colourful flapper dresses, immaculate bobs and vivid make-up. In the third act, we find Magda and Ruggero shacked up in Nice. Here we see how the impulsive romance is getting on. Ruggero wants to get married but Magda is riven with shame because of the courtesan lifestyle she has been leading. She sees herself as unworthy of the love she so idealises.

Whilst this is not an opera built around high drama, there is an emotional weight to the arguments of the couple as they see their dreams of true love slipping through their fingers. With this dramatic tension, the music gets better, swelling and aching as we see Blue’s beatific smile turn into agonised tears. Her pleading beau, the ingenuous Ruggero, is played by tenor Jonathan Tetelman, who we are warned is suffering from allergies. You wouldn’t have known. He is perfect – charming and impassioned with a sweetly robust but expressive voice.

Meanwhile, in the B plot, Prunier the poet falls in love with Magda’s maid Lisette. Emily Pogorelc truly steals the show in this role. She is hilarious and sassy, with a confident, characterful soprano. It may be that she and the pompous but endearing Prunier (Bekhzod Davronov) have the best chemistry in the opera and the truest love. It’s unclear if this is the intention of the opera. That’s the conundrum of working out the subtext of a lesser work. Certainly, the ending is an anticlimax. It’s tragic but rather than leaving you devastated in an epic, universal way, you just feel a bit icky.

As a revival production of a minor work, this is one for the completists. With its slightly problematic Taming of the Shrew-coded ending, it would need a more radical interpretation to guarantee it a bigger place in the modern repertoire. But this doesn’t detract from stellar performances, musicianship and direction.

Broadcast live on 20 April 2024 and playing again in cinemas this week

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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