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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La rondine (The swallow) - commedia lirica in three acts (1917)
Magda de Civry, a kept woman - Svetla Vassileva (soprano); Lisette, her maid - Maya Dashuk (soprano); Prunier, a poet - Emmanuele Giannino (tenor); Ruggero - Fabio Sartori (tenor); Rambaldo - Magda’s protector - Marzio Glossi (baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival/Albert Veronesi
Director: Lorenzo Amato.
Set and Costume Designer: Nall
Video Director: Matteo Riccheti
rec. live, 53rd Puccini Festival, Torre del Lago, Italy, 8, 10, 16 August 2007, Edition Casa Musicale Sonzogno
Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Dual Layer Disc. Sound format: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1.
Menu language, English. Subtitles: English and Italian
Performed in the Edition BMG Ricordi Music Publishing
NAXOS OPERA DVD 2.110266 [111:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Puccini was the epitome of the urbane Italian man of the turn of the nineteenth century. He made friends easily across social classes and was widely accepted as the foremost Italian composer of the day. But he had vices. The simple one of smoking doubtless contributed to a relatively early death. More complex was his sex life. He tempted another man’s wife to live with him and then constantly cheated on her until his death. This constant womanising meant much domestic strife as well as claims of paternity relationships that persist to this day. Consequently his domestic life was generally stressful and was certainly not conducive to creativity.

Puccini also had difficulty in deciding on suitable plays for his operatic subjects and working with librettists as I outline in my review of his third opera Manon Lescaut (see review). The difficulties with the libretto of that opera had the advantage of introducing him to Giuseppe Giacosa and the poet Luigi Illica who were responsible for Puccini’s three greatest operatic masterpieces, La boheme (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). The gap between the composition of these operas, particularly compared to Verdi at a similar stage of his career, let alone Rossini and Donizetti, is a measure of his personality and lifestyle. After Madama Butterfly, and its re-write, his next work was his first Metropolitan Opera premiere, La Fanciulla del West (1910) featuring a star-studded cast including Caruso. Puccini had really arrived. In it Puccini made his own inroads into the avant-garde. At this juncture he was at a crossroads in his compositional career. Always aware of contemporary musical developments he had begun to feel the pressure of the modernists and realised he could not return to the style of his great triumvirate.

During a visit to Vienna in the autumn of 1913 to attend the local premiere of La Fanciulla del West the directors of Vienna's Car-Theater offered Puccini a generous fee to compose a Viennese operetta. The idea appealed, as he believed the involvement of spoken dialogue would involve him in writing less music. After a change of heart he said his new work would take the form of a comic opera with no spoken dialogue in the style of Rosenkavalier. Earlier Giulio Ricordi, who had seen him through his difficult early years died and his son Tito took over the business. Tito was less inclined to tolerate Puccini’s dilettante ways and his proposal for an operetta did not meet the Ricordi ideal. Consequently Ricordi’s business rival Sonzogno published La rondine. It is the only work by the composer not published by Ricordi.

As was usual with Puccini, work was slow and versions of the libretto refused. Then in August 1914 Europe was engulfed in the conflagration of the First World War and by the time La rondine was finished in 1916, Italy and Austria were on opposite sides and a premiere in Vienna out of the question. After appropriate compromises and manoeuvring by Sonzogno, the work was premiered in Monte Carlo on 27 March 1917 with Tito Schipa as Ruggero; it was not seen in Vienna until 1920. But La Rondine failed to secure a place in the repertory. There were no heart-rending deaths which were expected of the composer’s works! Puccini had second and third thoughts and busied himself transposing and modifying. Roles such as those of Prunier became a baritone before reverting to tenor. Puccini also added an entrance aria for Ruggero, included here (Ch.10) and made major alterations to act three. The finale, used in this version, his third, is that in which Ruggero leaves Magda, not the reverse as in the first version.

Although the orchestration is not as dense as Puccini’s earlier works, the melodic structure is unmistakably his. Despite that, La rondine has never had massive popular appeal. For much of the twentieth century it was considered one of Puccini's less successful works The 1996 EMI recording under Antonio Pappano and featuring Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna put it more on the map (EMI 556338 2), as did the subsequent production at London’s Royal Opera House. The latter production was seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 2009 and was broadcast worldwide, again with Gheorghiu as Magda. It will probably appear on DVD later in the year. In the UK a production by Opera North uses the same third version as this performance and is reviewed in MusicWeb International’s Seen and Heard. This performance from Torre del Lago is the first time the work has been seen at the Puccini Festival for twenty years. It is Lorenzo Amato’s first shot at opera production.

Act one (Chs.2-13) is set at a cocktail party in Magda's salon. In this production the set is simple with decorative screens to the side and a rear stage with a large screen on which are projected a variety of images. The costumes are opulent and elegant Second Empire with the ladies in full length and full-skirted dresses. The stage is used for the ballet dancers who appear throughout the production. Prunier declares that love is in the air. He begins singing his latest song, which Magda completes with the most famous aria of the opera Chi il bel sogno di Doretta (Ch.4). Magda laments that as the kept woman of Rambaldo, she does not know true love; she recalls her youth, her aunt, and a young student she met and loved briefly. Rambaldo her protector brings her gifts whilst her maid Lisette brings in a young man with a letter of introduction (Chs.9-10). The young man, Ruggero, explains himself and his interest in life in Paris and particularly asks where is the best place to spend an evening in the city (Ch.10). The guests agree it is the cabaret at Bullier's. After the guests leave, Prunier returns declares his love for Lisette and secretly invites her to the cabaret. Later, Magda, on a whim, disguises herself and also goes (Ch.13).

The second act (Chs.14-22) is set at Bullier's. The costumes are bright and multi-coloured and the dancers somewhat idiosyncratically dressed in bikinis and the like, hardly Second Empire. The set and colourings are somewhat off-beat. Perhaps these reflect Magda’s dreams of true love. Certainly they’re no longer Second Empire. Everyone is singing and dancing. The disguised Magda, calling herself Paulette, meets Ruggero who explains he is from Montauban (Ch.15). The dancers do their waltz as the couple declare their love (Ch.16). Lisette recognizes Magda, but Prunier tells her she is mistaken. At the table, Lisette confesses to borrowing Magda's clothing and jewellery. Rambaldo enters, and Magda quietly has Prunier hide Ruggero. In a confrontation (Ch.21) Rambaldo demands an explanation. Magda explains that this is true love and she wants to stay with Ruggero and leave him. After Rambaldo leaves, Ruggero returns, and the couple declare their love whilst Magda sings of being afraid of her happiness (Ch.22).

Act three opens with a prelude, the music being accompanied by the dancers (Ch.23). Magda and Ruggero are living in a simple cottage near the sea. He has no idea how they will pay their mounting bills and he tells her that he has written to his parents for permission to marry her (Ch.24) declaring his true love in the aria Dimmi che vuoi seguirmi (Ch.26) whilst Magda’s face betrays her agony as she knows that she can never marry him because of her past. Prunier and Lisette arrive (Ch.27). Lisette has had a disastrous and brief career as an actress, constantly criticized by Prunier; she begs for her job back, and Magda consents (Ch.28). Rambaldo wants her back, and tells her that she cannot maintain a life here and shows her the money in his wallet that he leaves behind. Ruggero returns with the letter permitting the marriage, but Magda finally tells him all. He flings the money and accuses Magda of bringing dishonour on him and leaves. Like a swallow, she returns to her cage, literally as a large one is wheeled onto the stage.

So much of the success of any performance revolves around the role of Magda. Whilst Gheorghiu has made a name for herself in the role, in this performance Svetla Vassileva at least matches her vocally and gives a totally committed acted performance as well. She puts her whole body and face into her acting whilst her phrasing, legato and vocal expression are first rate; a consummate portrayal. Her fellow East European Maya Dashuk is lively and sparkling as the servant cum aspiring actress Lisette. Her singing and acting are good if not on the highest level of Vassileva. In the lead tenor role of Ruggero, Fabio Sartori has a pleasing tenor voice and matches his Magda for expressive phrasing, Svetla Vassileva has a clear vocal line and appealing tone. His is hardly the figure du part of the young ardent lover whilst his acting is too often off the semaphore variety. Nonetheless his clear Italianate vocal squilla is welcome. In the lesser tenor role of the poet Prunier, Emmanuele Giannino sings with good diction and clarity but lacks tonal appeal. His older looks are appropriate to the role. Marzio Glossi as Rambaldo sings strongly but lacks variety of vocal colour. The orchestra play well under Albert Veronesi’s flexible baton. 

Robert J Farr

see also review by Ian Lace


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