Friday, November 23, 2007

La Rondine

La Rondine ("The Swallow") is a rarely-performed Puccini opera. After seeing Wednesday night's performance at the San Francisco Opera, it's hard to understand why it's not almost as popular as La Bohème or Verdi's La Traviata, operas with which it shares plot and character elements.

Perhaps those inescapable echoes of the better-known operas are part of the problem. Both La Rondine and La Traviata center on a Parisian courtesan's attempt to escape her role and sustain true love. La Rondine's second act takes place in a dance hall that bears more than a slight resemblance to La Bohème's second-act Cafe Momus. And La Rondine shares with Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus the character of a maid who borrows her mistress's clothes and then encounters her in public in a mutually embarrassing situation.

La Rondine echoes other operas musically as well as dramatically. For example, both the first and second acts end with a couple singing the final notes of a love duet as they leave the stage (just as in La Bohème's famous Act I offstage "Amor!"). And while La Rondine is appealingly melodic, some of those melodies are themselves reminiscent of Puccini's previous operas (though self-borrowing is an operatic tradition that goes back to Monteverdi).

But it would be petty to complain about the opera's derivative aspects when experiencing such a wonderful production. What made it so involving was Angela Gheorghiu's performance in the lead role of Madga, the courtesan who tries to seize a last chance at true love. Gheorghiu doesn't just have a stunningly beautiful voice--she isn't afraid to use it expressively to convey emotional extremity. We have a recording of the opera with Kiri Te Kanawa as Magda; listening to it after seeing Gheorghiu, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between Te Kanawa's arias of joy and pain. Gheorghiu's singing, although thrillingly opulent, never sacrificed dramatic meaning for sheer beauty.

Of course, Gheorghiu is also very beautiful woman, and she looked great in Franca Squarciapino's attractive costumes. Her revealing Art Deco gown in Act I--the opera was updated slightly to the 1920s--gave her an opportunity show us why Magda has bewitched all Paris.

As the student Ruggero, whose arrival in Paris offers Madga a chance to relive the innocent love of her past, Misha Didyk made an appealing partner for Gheorghiu. His voice was especially strong and clear in the upper register; in the role's lower compass he sometimes lost some volume, and what sounds like a tiny lisp on certain vowels became more prominent. Both he and Gheorghiu required a few minutes to gauge the acoustic of the very full house, but soon both were soaring over Puccini's orchestral wall of sound without apparent difficulty. Didyk was also convincing as a naive young man who doesn't realize that in a corrupt world, love alone isn't sufficient for happiness.

Anna Christy was utterly charming as Lisette, Madga's maid--in the first act her bright soprano and spirited stage presence almost threatened to steal the show. Along with Gerard Powers' amusingly cynical poet Prunier, Lisette is half of the comedic couple whose story parallels and comments on the tragedy of Madga and Ruggero. (Just as Magda finds her past as a courtesan inescapable, so to does Lisette find herself returning to Magda's service after a brief fling at independence with Prunier.)

Of course, opera is a hugely complex undertaking, and so inevitably there were some flaws in the production. Using a video for the fire in Magda's palatial apartment in the first act was a miscalculation that should have been cut at the first rehearsal--it was too prominent, and strongly reminiscent of the yule-log Christmas TV broadcasts Mark Morris mocks in his Nutcracker parody The Hard Nut. Director Stephen Barlow's blocking was sometimes static or pointless, and lighting designer Duane Schuler's representation of dawn light filtering in through the windows of the dance hall in the second act looked instead like a glaring streetlight (he made up for it with the beautifully diffuse seaside twilight of the third act).

But these are minor problems in what was otherwise a memorable production of this unjustly overlooked gem. And most of what made it so memorable was Angela Gheorghiu's lovely and heartrending performance as Magda. Gheorghiu has made a recording of this opera with her husband Roberto Alagna; on the basis of this performance I'd give it a very strong recommendation.

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