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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
La rondine (1917, 1921, 1924) [112:38]
Svetla Vassileva (soprano) - Magda; Maya Dashuk (soprano) - Lisette; Fabio Sartori (tenor) - Ruggero; Emanuele Giannino (tenor) - Prunier; Marizio Giossi (baritone) - Rambaldo
Orchestra and Chorus of the Puccini Festival - Torre del Lago/Alberto Veronesi
rec. 53rd Puccini Festival, Torre del Lago, 8, 10 & 16 August 2007
NAXOS 8.660253-54 [68:28 + 34:10]
Experience Classicsonline

That Puccini had a problem with women both in real life and in his operas is well documented. There is the curious fact that for a man who loved women and wrote the most beautiful and achingly lovely music for them to sing, all of his mature operas but two require the main female protagonist to die - OK so it’s Liu in Turandot but the theory is good! The two where they do not - La fanciulla del West and La rondine are deemed the least successful and the latter is often pejoratively dismissed as Puccini’s attempt at operetta. Yes, there was a great mutual respect between Lehár and Puccini and yes the style and content of the narrative belongs more perhaps to operetta than grand opera but this is no more an operetta than a West End musical. It’s a Puccini opera out and out with a shift of emphasis and as such I’ve always enjoyed it hugely. This new recording enters an already distinguished field; my own personal favourite has always been the version starring Anna Moffo and conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli on RCA dating from 1966 (GD60459(2)). In more recent times Kiri Te Kanawa recorded it under Maazel (1981, Sony-CBS M2K-37852) and most famously the Gheorghiu-Alagna-Pappano “dream team” won a Gramophone award for their version in 1997 (EMI 56338). So it was with considerable expectation that I was looking forward to hearing this new version from Naxos particularly as it claims to be the world premiere recording of Puccini’s final (fourth) version.

This recording is an unmitigated disaster without a single redeeming feature. Just recently I have been listening to a broad sweep of Naxos discs and one unifying factor has been the quality of them both technically and musically. I was looking forward to writing a good comparative review and genuinely expecting this to be able to offer some competition to the versions above. But this is horrible. Any comparison would be pointless - this new version losing hands down on any means of measuring.. The very first notes ring alarms - the orchestra as recorded sounds constricted and boxy, the strings thin and scrawny, odd brass instruments blare out without any sense of balance technically or musically, ensemble and intonation is second rate. Throughout the playing sounds dispirited and routine. Perhaps as a one-off regional opera house performance viewed after a good meal on holiday this would be tolerated but never in this context. At best the singers are workaday, at worst mediocre. Svetla Vassileva as Magda sings with a singular lack of charm, Fabio Sartori as Ruggero is an old fashioned slightly old-sounding shouty tenor. Just one quick comparison - the opera’s best known aria comes right at the start - Chi il bel sogno di Doretta. It starts as the poet Prunier recites one of his latest poems but is then completed by the heroine Magda. Moffo’s Magda is off-set by the great Piero di Palma and this two-part aria builds to a compellingly moving climax - yes, with a touch of Lehár where a solo violin doubles the melody. On this new recording the Prunier of Emanuele Giannino is quite unable to play the simple sentiment without sounding uncomfortable and the second half of the aria is reprised with no beauty of mood or music at all. Add an out-of-tune, untogether solo violin, an ugly onstage piano and the flight of this swallow is already bound for a crash-landing. We are given the interpolated tenor entrance aria - included by Pappano, omitted by Molinari-Pradelli - but here sung with little of the bounding energy and ardour that it was written to inject into this sequence. A mention now for the stage noises that accompany every tiny movement. This is a “live” performance. Not that I personally have any problems with these as such - a document of a special intense night in the theatre can be hugely compelling. Not here, instead it points up all the potential pitfalls. Excessive audience noise including drama-interrupting applause, albeit rather dutiful sounding, cuts across the ends of arias and the beginnings of subsequent passages. However it is the concertante crinolines that catch the ear. Every feminine stage movement is marked by an extraordinary amount of rustling - it is terribly distracting and very loud.

Finally we limp into Act II - one of Puccini’s great crowd scenes full of bustle and energy. The small-sounding chorus sing with as little gusto as the orchestra play. The great choral/soloist interchanges go for nothing and just when you thought it couldn’t get worse they substitute one of Puccini’s most endearing orchestrational twists; the act ends with an off stage whistler - omitted by Maazel, included by Pappano and best by far by Molinari-Pradelli. Here we get a limp piccolo from the pit and another moment of magic bites the dust. So by the time we get to the “new” material of Act III I’d really stopped caring. Yes it is interesting to hear and probably it is a better solution dramatically to the otherwise rather peremptory ending but unless you are a die-hard Puccini completist this is too little far too late. One last sling and arrow - the conducting of Alberto Veronesi is utterly undistinguished - tempi throughout are at best safe, at worst leaden.

As is standard with Naxos operas there is a detailed synopsis but no libretto - but this can be found online. I see that this version can be purchased as a DVD (Naxos DVD 2.110266) - the two or three production photos all seem to feature swallows, just in case you are unsure about what La Rondine means - perhaps images give some context to what is heard on the compact discs. I see this was recorded almost exactly two years ago so the editorial powers that be at Naxos have had plenty of time to consider this release. Quite what has possessed them to think this merits wider provenance I cannot imagine. It’s easily the worst Naxos disc I have heard in years. If you know this opera avoid this performance and if you don’t doubly avoid it. It is so much better than this would have you imagine. Buy the Moffo version instead!

A bafflingly poor performance of an under-appreciated Puccini gem.

Nick Barnard

see also reviews of the DVD version (2.110266) by Robert Farr and Ian Lace


Note from Naxos website
Although one of his most consistently lyrical operas, La rondine (The Swallow) remains one of Puccini’s least known. Dissatisfied with the result of his work, Puccini wrote three versions, with two different endings, and continued to make further revisions up to his death in 1924. The innovative 2007 production at the Torre del Lago Giacomo Puccini Festival, presented here, is in effect a fourth version, which combines Acts I and II of the first version (1917), with Lorenzo Ferrero’s 1994 orchestration of parts of the Finale of Act III of the incomplete third version (1921), some of which had survived only in piano score, as well as Ruggero’s Act I romanza, Parigi è la città dei desideri, from the second version (1920). 

 


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