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Met Opera Live - Puccini, La Rondine: Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission live to the Barbican Cinema, London. 10. 1.2009 (MMB)

The Metropolitan Opera live in HD series continued on Saturday with one of the lesser known and least performed of Puccini’s operas: La Rondine (The Swallow). The story of La Rondine is a variation on the theme of the “fallen woman” who redeems herself in the end through supreme sacrifice and usually death. In literature, this was immortalised in Dumas’s La Dame des Camélias, which in turn has inspired other great works in various art forms; the most famous of which is probably Verdi’s La Traviata. However, the plot of La Rondine is considerably weaker by comparison: there is no moving, pleading father to trigger the heroine’s supreme act of self-sacrifice , she does not die in the end and so  does not become completely pure.

In La Rondine, Magda (the mistress of a rich man) falls in love with the student Ruggero and goes away with him to the Riviera, pursuing her dreams (hence the title ‘the swallow’ as these birds migrate in winter to the South in search of a warmer, more pleasant climate). Ruggero has no idea of who she really is and  eventually, writes to his family and tells them about Magda and their love.He receives a reply from his mother where she declares how happy she is for him and that she is looking forward to his marriage and future children. On reading the letter, Magda feels guilty and so renounces Ruggero, sacrificing her love for his greater good. Unlike the heroines previously  mentioned, Magda does not die but returns to her former life, as a mistress of the rich Rambaldo who takes her back. From a modern perspective, it all seems rather silly: would a woman in Magda’s position really confess all because of such a letter? And again, once Magda feels compelled to tell Ruggero the truth, his reaction to the prospect of losing her means that his love is strong and he really does not care about her past. The fact that he simply lets her go makes his character not only implausible but also lacking in personality.

This obvious weakness of the plot may explain  why the opera has not been particularly successful. A second reason is arguably the sub-plot, involving the characters who provide the comic relief: Magda’s friend, the poet Prunier, and her maid, Lisette. Their characterisations are not well developed and the story line appears at times illogical and often muddled. It is implanted suddenly in the main plot during the first act. Without any preliminary explanations or at least innuendos that there was something going on between the two, the audience is suddenly told that Prunier and Lisette are deeply in love with each other. There are also no hints of Lisette’s aspirations at becoming a singer or that Prunier would be able to help her succeed in such a career. This information is dropped into the middle of the third and final act, leaving the audience a little stunned even though there is a parallel between the two women: they both return to their former lives. Magda does so because she recognises that she has no right to “corrupt” an innocent man and renounces her love; Lisette returns because she realises that her only talent is to be a maid.

The libretto was a translation by Giuseppe Adami from an original in German by A. M. Willner and Heinz Reichert. La Rondine started life as a suggestion, made to Puccini in 1913 that he should compose an operetta for the Karltheater in Vienna. Eventually, the composer agreed but insisted that it should be a comic opera and that the text should be in Italian. When the German libretto arrived, Adami translated it. Puccini completed the score in October 1915 but World War I delayed its first performance and  the composer had to wait until 27th March 1917 for the opera to be premiered at the Salle Garnier in neutral Monte Carlo.

Puccini’s music for this not so great libretto is however completely wonderful and brilliantly composed. The score to La Rondine reveals a surprising side to the composer, demonstrating that he mastered a lighter musical style, as effectively as he did the more dramatically powerful of his earlier more famous operas. Puccini’s almost magical lyrical touch, his celebrated trade-mark from such master pieces as La bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly is also present in La Rondine and  it is the music that makes the opera worth producing. The score is richly melodic and there are some unforgettable moments, in particular Magda’s aria Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, in Act I, and the fabulous ensemble piece Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso, in the Act II.

This transmission of La Rondine is a co-production from the Met, the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was devised by Nicolas Joël in an art-deco style and the settings designed by Ezio Frigerio are simply gorgeous. It stars Angela Gheorghiu as Magda and her real life husband Roberto Alagna as Ruggero. I am not the greatest fan of either of them but I have to say that this opera is a perfect vehicle for both. Their chemistry is undeniable and the fact that they are happily married was visible on stage, providing some wonderful scenes of easy intimacy and real tenderness, which made Magda and Ruggero a believable, real couple, completely in love with each other.

At the beginning of the performance, the Met’s general manager announced that Ms Gheorghiu was unwell with a bad cold, but did not wish to disappoint the audience at the Met nor the thousands in the cinemas around the world and would sing. If this was true -  and there is no reason to think otherwise - then it did not impair her performance in any way. Gheorghiu sang a part that fits her like a glove flawlessly. She is positively radiant and endearing as Magda, looks fantastic in the beautiful costumes designed by Franca Squarciapino and there is never any doubt that any man would just fall for her. Alagna does not exactly appear believable as the young, somehow innocent student but once he falls in love with Magda, he comes into his own. He sings expressively of love and passion though his voice fades a little, on occasions, particularly in the first duet with his wife and then during the ensemble piece in the second act. However, his acting and his singing became better and better as the opera progressed. His feelings always ring true and his final scene, in which Magda leaves him, is incredibly moving and touching. Alagna sheds some real tears here; one truly believes that he is devastated and does not know how to continue living.

The young  American soprano  Lisette Oropesa, as the maid Lisette, is a wonderful revelation. She is not only an excellent singer but has also great comic timing. The youthful enthusiasm with which she launches into her role is as commendable as is touching. She is sassy, funny and lively, creating an endearing character while providing some beautiful, crystalline singing. As her partner Prunier, Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu is excellent and makes the most of his difficult and undeveloped character. His voice is wonderfully clear; he sings with great ease and is to my mind superior to Alagna in some of his scenes. Bass Samuel Ramey makes a good, solid, sympathetic Rambaldo and delivers his part effectively, as do the rest of the cast and members of the chorus.

Marco Armiliato leads the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in a lively, suitably humorous yet also touching performance of Puccini’s beautiful score. He demonstrates a great insight into the composer’s lyricism and an excellent understanding of what Puccini possibly wanted to hear.

Two of the features of the Met’s live transmissions are of course the presence of a famous host or hostess and the interviews during the interval. This time, the opera was introduced by Renée Fleming who also conducted the interviews. She did it in a professional, pleasant manner though it was at times obvious that she feels a little more anxious and less secure about this type of work than she does on stage. The interview with the two leading stars was interesting at first but soon became a slightly irritating exchange of compliments between Gheorghiu, Alagna and Fleming on how great all three of them are. Fleming was a more effective hostess during the second interview with the “lesser” stars Brenciu and Oropesa. The American soprano conducted a pleasant conversation, which sounded natural throughout, in spite of her continuous glances at the cue-cards in her hand. The quality of this interview was partially due to Oropesa’s spontaneous, genuine enthusiasm despite Brenciu’s obvious uneasiness when Fleming asked him if Gheorghiu had been supportive since he is her fellow Romanian!

All in all, this performance of Puccini’s La Rondine did not disappoint. It is a delightful, beautiful and truly gorgeous production, mostly due to Nicolas Joël’s vision of an art-deco set. Part of the credit must also go to the set and costume designers who so brilliantly translated Joël’s concept. The settings are fabulous and tasteful; the costumes wonderful, with radiant colours, especially the women’s gowns. Important to the success of the performance is also the obvious chemistry of true-life couple Gheorghiu and Alagna: the happiness of their marriage really is naturally transported to the stage making Magda and Ruggero’s relationship event more poignant and convincing.

The transmission was expertly directed for film and television by Brian Large; an experienced, talented director who has given viewers many wonderful moments, not least some of the prestigious broadcasts of the annual New Year’s concert in Vienna. It made for pleasant viewing, with excellent camera work, alternating well between close-ups of the singers and wide shots of the set and ensemble on stage. The sound was generally excellent though at times there were minor distortions, particularly on the higher notes or the most powerful orchestral moments. Whether this was an original fault at the Met or at the Barbican cinema, I could not tell but it did not in any way distract from an excellent performance and a wonderful evening.

Margarida Mota-Bull

The next Met Opera Live broadcast is on 17th January of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic  and is followed  on 24th January, by Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Margarida Mota-Bull's operatic e-novel, Canto de Tenore is available Here

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