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PUCCINI: La Rondine, Opera in three acts.Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 3.12 2005 (RJF)


For their December production twelve months ago Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music’s School of Operatic and Vocal Studies staged Puccini’s Suor Angelica. This year they have gone to the composer’s immediately preceding operatic work, La Rondine. The two works have one common factor that might appeal to a college keen to provide stage experience for its young singers in that both works have several smaller, comprimario, roles. These roles enable a number of students to gain the invaluable experience of singing on stage with a full orchestra in the pit. However, in respect of the orchestration of the works there is a fundamental difference that calls into question the suitability of the work for young singers. In Suor Angelica Puccini’s orchestration is Debussy-esque in transparency whereas La Rondine is Puccini in the full-blown orchestral mode, that he had evolved in Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del west.

Set piece arias are limited, Magda’sChe il bel sogno di Doretta’ and the later addition of ‘
Ore dolci divine’ being notable exceptions. This style, which can best be described as sung dialogue with the colour of a full orchestra, demands strong toned voices with a reserve of heft, qualities which evolve over time and are rarely found in those not fully embarked on a professional career. I regret to note that none of the four principal singers in this performance had those skills. There was disturbing evidence of voices being pushed past their current limit as singers sought to infuse vocal characterization to match their excellent acting and movement skills.


Claire Groom sang the lead role of Magda. Her lyric soprano, with its quick fluttery vibrato, would have been better heard in a lighter fach. I note she is carded as Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore for Diva Opera in 2006. Donizetti will be far kinder to her voice and development and will enable her to match her vocal characterization to her undoubted acting ability. The same comments could be made about Simon Crosby Buttle’s Ruggero. He was a convincing gauche student in Act I and more confident and sophisticated in Act III. His tenor is true and he sings with good diction, but far too often he pushed his voice too far to the expense of colour in particular. Tito Schipa created the role, a singer renowned for honeyed tone as well as vocal strength. Just once, in Act III as he contemplated his children together with Magda did Buttle take advantage of a quiet orchestral passage: he phrased with gentility and let a mezza voce escape.

The role of Prunier the poet is given as comprimario but secondo tenor would be a better description. For much of Act I, and again in Act III, Prunier keeps the scanty plot together. In my review of the college’s March 2005 production of La Cenerentola I admired his light flexible voiced Ramiro and hoped he would not be tempted by heavier roles. I note that he had a minor role in Opera Rara’s recent CD issue of
Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei and which I have also reviewed for MusicWeb. If he is to maintain the vocal characteristics that have given him such bel canto opportunities, he should stick to Donizetti and Rossini and leave late Puccini for some time yet. He was tempted to put too much voice into his singing at the cost of colour and phrasing. His acted portrayal however, indicates a natural stage confidence and aplomb.

In the role of the maid Lisette, Katherine Moore grew with confidence as the evening progressed and sang with more colour and expression in Act III than at the start. In the cameo role of Rambaldo, Alastair McCall showed promise but had little to sing.


Stefan Janski’s direction of the young cast was exceptional even by his renowned standards. Not only did the principal singers react to each other and move with grace, but the large numbers on stage during Act II in Bullier’s night club acted, sang and danced as if they knew exactly what they were about; something that professional choristers often fail to convey. The basic set of a curved, patterned back and a similarly marked front gauze allowed quick and easy passage between acts. The lighting effects, felicitous throughout, were particularly noteworthy at the start of Act III when Magda admires the sea setting of their residence. It was magical in the best sense.


As I have implied already, Mark Shanahan conducted this late Puccini work with rather too much vigour for his young singers. La Rondine may have been conceived as operetta it actually ended up as something more. Shanahan didn’t shirk from the reminders from La Boheme but he played La Rondine rather as if verismo were the name of the game. It isn't: Puccini’s publisher Ricordi, refused to publish the work, deriding it as second rate Lehar and as it happens, Lehar's most famous work might better have suited the singers here, and would also have met the requirement to give experience to the maximum numbers as soloists or choristers. Since the opera profession is highly competitive and show case opportunities are few, the list of RNCM alumni indicates that the college can and does train to the highest standards. But singers too need self-discipline so that they convey an appropriate figure du part for the roles that come their way. It struck me that in some instances (not all, I hasten to add) Jamie Oliver's help in the college refectory might enhance careers considerably.

Robert J Farr




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