La rondine flies at the ROH

19 Jul

La rondine is an oddity, not just for Puccini, but, generally, as an opera.  It has a very simple plot – a courtesan falls for an innocent young man and leaves him when she realises that their relationship can never lead to marriage.  Like one or two other Puccini operas (Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Tosca) its early acts are set in a particular social milieu with plenty of minor characters who gradually thin out as the action concentrates on the major characters.  Like Bohème, there isn’t an obviously dislikeable character in it.  Unlike most of them, however, the tension arises entirely within Magda and what we have is a picture of her growing up emotionally – almost as a commentary on the discussion of the nature of love in the first act.  And it is this lack of tension between the characters that makes it most odd.  The first two acts are a succession of charming, elegant vignettes and set pieces, with the developing love between Magda and Ruggero beautifully depicted.  And then their relationship suddenly goes wrong and you just aren’t prepared for it and, musically, you don’t get the inexorable move towards tragedy that you get in the other operas. 

With sympathetic performers, it can work but, of all Puccini operas, it is the one that needs the most work and which plays itself least.  And you can’t help feeling that other composers did this subject better – he’s often compared to Lehar, but the Lehar operettas most like rondine (Der Zarewitsch, Land of Smiles) were written in the following decade and, to be honest, are more successful pieces.

It’s an opera I can take or leave – a pleasant enough evening but my life wouldn’t be wrecked if I never saw it again – a once a decade piece unless a really gorgeous cast comes along.  My partner, however, has a really soft spot for the piece and, since the last time we saw it was in 2002, I had no good reason not to go again to the latest ROH revival.  I had quite a good time at the performance on 17th July.

We had a choice of Angela Gheorghiu or Ermonela Jaho and I chose Jaho.  I’ve seen Gheorghiu in the role twice before and very much admired Jaho in Suor Angelica.  She started off, I thought, rather tentatively – almost drowned by the orchestra in the conversational passages in Act I and the voice not completely secure when trying to sing pianissimo.  I wasn’t sure how comfortable she was as the rather arch society lady.  She seemed much more comfortable in the love scenes in the second act and, I thought, was very special indeed in the third.  She has a particular gift for expressing doubt and guilt in an otherwise sympathetic character and the grief that this causes.  She sang her music in Act III with just that quality and with great beauty and I very much admired her direct, honest portrayal.  I think it would have made an even stronger impression in a smaller house.

Her Ruggero was Atallo Ayan who again, seemed slightly uncomfortable at the start but who warmed up to give a very nicely, strongly sung, sympathetically acted portrayal.  I can imagine that he’d make a nice Rodolfo or Alfredo Germont.

Edgaras Montvidas made a charming, very elegant Prunier even if there were times that I wanted just a little more warmth to his voice.  He had a lovely Lisette in Sabina Puertolas very wittily acted and rather a nice soubrette-ish voice.  The two of them provided a warmth and counterpoint to the leading couple that was absolutely right.

Nobody else really matters in the opera and most of the ladies seem to be indistinguishable.  However, they were all very well played indeed and Pietro Spagnoli did what he could with Rambaldo. 

Marco Armilato conducted with enthusiasm and a real sense of style.  The beguiling melodies made their effect and the whole was perfectly paced.  At times, particularly in the first Act, I felt the orchestra was just a touch loud and was drowning the voices.  And perhaps this is one of the problems of doing the piece in this house.  It’s actually an intimate piece and all of the singers might have benefitted from a more intimate production and being closer to their audience.

I must have been in quite a mean mood when I booked because I went for cheap seats in the amphitheatre – perfectly adequate ones, but not quite my normal ones.  Occasionally, meanness pays off.  Everyone clearly went for the Gheorghiu performances and I had a nice email a couple of weeks ago offering me a free upgrade to the Orchestra Stalls.  There also seemed to be a number of cheap offers going the rounds as well.  The seats gave a splendid view of Ezio Frigiero’s massive but very beautiful and elegant sets and of Nicholas Joel’s very elegant, witty  production (rehearsed so that it looked as fresh as if it were new by Stephen Barlow).  It’s strong enough so that the piece just escapes being drowned by the set, with the important action taking place nicely downstage with lots of room beyond for the crowd to be doing their stuff.  If you’re going to do the piece at the ROH, it’s hard to imagine a more satisfactory way of performing it and I hope that they keep this production around for a bit longer.

I still don’t think it’s a great opera, but I enjoyed this a lot more than I had expected.

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