Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giuseppe Adami
Director: James Hurley
Of the three productions in Opera North’s ‘Green Season’ La Rondine (The Swallow) is closest to a ‘traditional’ approach to opera with a lavish staging examining the concept of ‘romantic’ love. Leslie Travers’s set is, however, a practical demonstration of recycling, transforming into three separate and distinct locations with economical ease.
The opera begins before the overture with members of the cast, in character, wandering around the stage; chatting as if the party in act one has already begun or, in the cunning nooks and crannies that surround the set, putting on their glad rags getting ready to attend. But with a snap of the fingers the set expands becoming a stylish 1920’s Parisian apartment.
At a party hosted by her sugar daddy courtesan Magda (Galina Averina), overhears a debate on whether true love is back in fashion. The opinion is put forward by poet Prunier(Elgan Llŷr Thomas) who has a vested interest in pushing the argument – being in a secret relationship with Magda’s spirited maid Lisette(Claire Lees).
Magda’s experience of true love is largely theoretical – a nostalgic recollection of her first relationship, which was never really put to any kind of test. On impulse she disguises herself to follow her friends to Bullier’s nightclub where she encounters, and becomes attracted to, Ruggero (Sébastien Guèze), newly arrived in the city. As the passion between the duo becomes mutual Magda leaves her life of ease but when Ruggero raises the subject of marriage and children she is tormented her shady past may destroy their happiness.
Director James Hurley celebrates the concept of romantic love in this lush production. Tribute is paid to glossy Hollywood interpretations as bellboys click their heels and pose in the manner of classic musicals. The closing to the second act is overwhelming with a chorus of triumphant vocals that simply keeps growing, washing over the audience while the lovers are showered in rose petals.
Yet Hurley keeps the opera grounded with an awareness overindulgence has a penalty. At the party in act one the female guests get as much pleasure from removing inappropriate footwear and rubbing their feet as from drinking expensive booze. Showering the lovers with flowers is a gorgeous romantic gesture but weary waiters are showing sweeping up afterwards.
By the third act the massive vase of flowers which filled the entire rear wall of the stage has been replaced by a handful of shabby blooms. But there is a sense Magda’s act of self-sacrifice is driven by her psychological insecurities and anxieties more than penury. The angst-ridden relationship between Magda and Ruggero contrasts with that of Prunier and Lisette whose less dramatic approach to love allows them to come to terms with adversity and remain a couple.
The plot of La Rondine is similar to the more famous La traviata but not as dramatically satisfying. This production, however, shows Opera North at its best, showcasing the talents of the entire company. Galina Averina’s tormented Magda dominates but even the smaller roles are filled by vivid and convincing characterisations.
Reviewed on 17 November 2023