Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Rondine - a commedia lirica in three acts (1917)
Magda – Ainhoa Arteta (soprano)
Ruggero – Marcus Haddock (tenor)
Lisette – Inva Mula (soprano)
Prunier – Richard Troxell (tenor)
Rambaldo – William Parcher (baritone)
Périchaud – Tony R. Dillon
Gobin – Steven Gathman
Crébillon – Chris Owens
Yvette – Angela Turner Wilson
Bianca – Kathleen Segar
Suzy – Edrie Means-Weekly
Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Emmanuel Villaume
rec. live, Kennedy Center Washington USA, 11, 15 March 1998
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: LPCM Stereo / Dolby Surround 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Chinese
DECCA 074 3335 [110:00]
I’d been putting off reviewing this DVD. La Rondine has always been one of my favourites in the Puccini canon. So what if the plot is wafer thin even by opera’s standards. SO what if it’s considered the poor relation in that composer’s oeuvre. What you have in this opera is the most glorious sequence of passionate lyrical outpouring. In a good performance it blows any critical carping out of the water. And therein was my dilemma – not so long ago I eagerly received a Naxos CD (allied to a DVD I have not seen) of this work including previously omitted arias and a new ending – heaven for sure… not. That performance is an unmitigated disaster and to be honest it rather shook my faith in the work. But in the spirit of “if you fall off a horse you have to get straight back on” I have screwed my courage to the sticking post, girded my critical loins and plunged back. And I am so glad I did. This DVD of a Washington National Opera production is glorious. My only query is why it has taken 10 years to reach DVD – is this a reissue of a disc I missed?
A DVD with its added visual dimension brings in the whole question of production and the director’s vision. The director here is Marta Domingo and I find it hard to fault her directorial choices at any turn – the chosen ending is the main bone of contention and more of that later. Her creative team’s greatest stroke of dramatic wisdom is the restitution of Ruggero’s entrance aria Parigi! É la città dei desideri as well as two arias/altercations between Magda and Rambaldo both of which clarify and delineate the nature of their courtesan/client relationship thereby making the whole opera less of a chocolate-box confection than it is often presumed to be. For certain operas a stylised production can be wonderful however a piece like La Rondine where the morals and social mores are so of their time a realistic production is absolutely the right choice. The staging here is magnificent – opulent, richly detailed, and with a fantastic eye for detail. I’m not sure when I have seen a chorus (in Act II) act with such convincing subtle characterization – every couple are real and individual. Also, what a delight to see principals who are believably their characters – Ainhoa Arteta as Magda sings quite beautifully but more to the point looks stunning too. I very much like the way Marcus Haddock sings with great attack and energy and Italianate ardour as her lover Ruggero but his acting clearly reveals him to be a bit of a lovable oaf. Haddock acts with a lumbering clean-shaven blankness that is brilliant in its subtlety – this is no witty cavalier Rodolpho or bravura Cavaradossi let alone a smooth-talking Pinkerton. The tragedy of La Rondine springs from the self-deluding hopes of Magda hung on the naïve openness of Ruggero. The speed with which he is swept away by Magda - even allowing for operatic convention’s “love at first sight” - bodes ill for all concerned and I think justifies Domingo’s final coup de théâtre. The secondary roles are excellent as well. It is fortunate Arteta and Haddock are so strong because Inva Mula as Lisette and Richard Troxell as Prunier would blow lesser performances away with the strength of their singing and characterization. Mula positively twinkles as the coquettish maid and Troxell is charm personified as Prunier the “profound” poet. William Parcher as the rich lover of Magda again looks and sings the part to perfection but also acts with real depth. I cannot stress too strongly how much I appreciated the subtle detail on display here. Another instance – Magda sings about true love not being able to be bought but then accepts an expensive bracelet from Rambaldo – Arteta’s Magda is fully aware of the hyprocrisy in accepting such a gift but at the same time recognizes the pragmatic business necessity of it too – superb. As it happened, the evening before I watched this DVD I watched one of the live HD relays from the Met in New York in a local theatre of Turandot. It was Zeffirelli’s absurdly lavish staging and was superbly done with much fine singing but the acting was from the school of sledgehammer and nut solutions compared to that on display here.
Ultimately this opera, indeed any Puccini opera comes back to the music. La Rondine is filled to bursting with the most glorious melodies that expand and flower in the most heart-melting way. For sure, these are more deliberately lyrical and ‘simple’ melodies than Puccini wrote elsewhere but this is because the storyline and the characters demand that. Prunier’s great Chi il bel sogno di Doretta with its answering completion by Magda is one of my all-time favourite operatic sequences. The greatest compliment I can pay the singers here is that they almost make me forget about Anna Moffo and Piero del Palma on the great benchmark RCA recording from the mid-1960s. The old recording omits the Ruggero entrance aria and certainly without it his character is barely present in the act and certainly one wonders why Magda would wish to engineer a meeting at the Bal Bullier with him – a resolution reinforced by her argument with Rambaldo which underscores the business nature of their relationship.
Act II is one of Puccini’s most sustained pieces of virtuoso writing for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Domingo and her team underline each moment superbly and are packed to the hilt by the enthusiastic Washington Opera Chorus. Again the staging is large-scale and filled with fascinating detail. Not that it matters one single jot but I like the fact that one of the chorus is dressed as Aristide Bruant – after the famous Lautrec poster of the singer dressed in his distinctive large black hat and red scarf. Nothing is made of this – except it does not escape the beady eye of veteran video director Brian Large who choreographs his cameras with all his usual aplomb and musico-dramatic sensitivity. My only quibble is the substitution of the off-stage whistler for the poignant close of the act. It is such a tiny detail I don’t really know why it bothers me so much – I think it adds such a degree of humanity and creates an unbearably bitter-sweet transition to the lover’s closing duet. For the Naxos recording with a piccolo player overbearingly close in the mix it was a last straw. Here, with another piccolo it becomes a very small fly in the ointment. A word here about conductor Emmanuel Villaume and his Washington National Opera Orchestra. I have not put a comparative stopwatch on this performance for the simple and best of all possible reasons that I was so engrossed in it as a whole I didn’t want to stop watching and make dry analyses. My impression is that the lyrical arias are performed relatively slowly but again this is to good effect with all of the singers able to sustain the tempi and musical lines superbly. The orchestra are alert and vigorous when required – the voices are prominent in the mix although occasionally single instrumental lines obtrude. The sound is well on the good side of average without ever being truly sumptuous or opulent. Again this suits the slightly leaner scoring of the piece although just occasionally I would have enjoyed a chance of wallowing in some symphonic excess. I like very much the spontaneous urgency that Villaume injects into the score – the epitome of irrational love, this is a very skilfully conceived musical presentation of the score.
Act III is a problem. But in rejecting the opera because it lacks a wholly satisfactory conclusion seems to me absurd. Domingo has been criticised in some quarters for creating a tragic ending that Puccini did not specifically envisage. At the close of the opera she has Magda drown herself in the sea as opposed to Puccini’s original concept of her disconsolately returning to her former life with Rambaldo in Paris. Certainly Domingo’s solution gives a greater dramatic arc to the whole work and to this act in particular. The staging is simple and almost austere in comparison to the visual riches that precede it. But this underlines the simplicity of life and love that Magda craves away from the social complexities of the big city. Haddock sings heroically but even he struggles with a character who goes from puppy love to bitter dismissal in moments and all because of an anonymous letter. The fact that he makes it work at all is due to the dramatic foundations he laid earlier depicting Ruggero as naïve at best. Given that Magda is far too worldly-wise not to see him for what he is you cannot help but speculate that she implicitly foresaw the ultimate failure of their love but grasped it as a desperate attempt to escape the fate of the courtesan. That is all rather melodramatic but if you accept it as a motivating force then her suicide becomes a logical outcome. Arteta sings beautifully but the music of the act functions more as a sequence of melodic reminiscences of what has gone before. The final scene as the day ends and the mists roll in is poetically simple in its staging but very moving. This is not the overwhelming ending of La Boheme or Madama Buttterfly but on its own terms it works.
I have not seen any of the other DVD versions of this opera – the New York Met production from the beginning of this year will be available soon I assume. But collectors should feel confident in buying this performance regardless of the competition. Truly magnificent singing allied to finely detailed acting in a brilliantly staged production caught on film with customary alertness to musical and dramatic detail by Brian Large. I do not find myself returning to my operatic DVDs very often but this is an exception – an excellent way of discovering the hidden jewel that is La Rondine.