La Rondine has always been regarded as the ugly duckling
among Puccini’s mature operas. To most opera-lovers it is synonymous
with the aria Il sogno di Doretta, which indeed is very
beautiful. Closer acquaintance with the score reveals that there
is much else that is worth savouring. Ruggero, the leading tenor,
has several fine solos but the real high-spot is the quartet
with chorus in the second act. The surging melody is one of
Puccini’s most inspired inventions and the build-up to the crowning
climax is worthy to put beside any of Verdi’s great ensembles.
So why the ‘ugly duckling’ epithet? One reason is the mixed
character of the music. We recognise Puccini but his intention
was to write an operetta and so he includes features reminiscent
of Lehár. That is in itself not a bad thing and Lehár had learnt
quite a lot from Puccini. There are points in common between
for instance Turandot and The Land of Smiles.
As an avid admirer of Lehár I have no difficulties in accepting
this mix and even though the inspiration doesn’t flow on the
same level as in quartet it is far from the diluted brew that
has been suggested in some quarters. In a good production possible
longueurs can easily be bridged.
This is such a good production. The sets are luxuriously realistic,
the first act oozing with upper class feeling, as does the fashionable
hotel in act III, while in sharp contrast to those settings
the second act bar is irresistibly down-to-earth, crowded with
boisterous, individually chiselled characters. This is where
this production wins hands-down: the utterly detailed instruction
where every single gesture, movement and facial expression is
thought out to convey a true sense of real life to the onlookers.
Rarely have I seen a production where the feeling of theatre
is wiped away and the orchestral pit symbolically removed to
bid the audience in and be participants in the proceedings.
I don’t know how well it worked in the theatre but as filmed,
under the experienced hands of Brian Large, this is a performance
that can’t possibly leave any viewers unmoved.
The many minor roles in the first act are brilliantly worked
out and marvellously created. I am certain that I will return
to this DVD often, just to savour the many lovely details in
the acting, and the interplay between the characters. This is
even more pronounced when we come to the five main characters.
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna have for many years had
a soft spot for this opera and their acting and deep involvement
is truly amazing. ‘Acting’, in fact, seems the wrong word here.
They are their roles and when the cameras follow their
intimate scenes in almost impertinent close-ups the viewer gets
a feeling of embarrassment, of being witness to a private showdown
where one should just look in a different direction. The long
scene in the third act where Magda backs away from their love
affair is one of the most touching and sublime moments in any
opera performance I have seen. The second couple, Prunier and
Lisette, are also vividly portrayed, giving further depth to
the performance. Samuel Ramey’s stern Rambaldo is a fine impersonation
in restrained fashion – though it has to be said that vocally
he has little to offer nowadays.
Alagna and Gheorghiu, on the other hand, are in marvellous vocal
shape, singing with tonal lustre and intensity. What is, to
some extent, missing is nuance. There are moments when one wants
to cry out: ‘Please, Roberto, a little pianissimo here!’ There
are pianissimos in some places, and finely executed as well,
but ideally I wish he had been more generous with soft nuance.
But still this is, from both of them, beautiful and glorious
singing that few others can accomplish. Lisette Oropesa, a comic
talent of great proportions, also sports a lovely soubrette
voice – she has recently also been Susanna in Le nozze di
Figaro. Marius Brenciu has a small but agreeable lyric tenor
voice that is ideally suited to his role.
There are some glimpses from backstage between the acts and
extra bonus interviews with the four leading singers with Renée
Fleming as host. Don’t miss this absolutely enchanting DVD.
It is bound to be one of my recordings of the year!
and a further review from Ian Lace
This production is sheer joy. Many Puccini fans will remember
seeing it at movie theatres across the globe on 10 January 2009
when a live HD transmission
was broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. Now here for repeated
viewing is the DVD of this enchantment.
[Please scroll down if you want to proceed
straight to the review of this DVD.]
Introduction – Background to La Rondine
Puccini had originally conceived La Rondine as an operetta
for production in Vienna. Written in the years of the Great
War, its lighter atmosphere could hardly be considered appropriate
to the times. Moreover producers were somewhat baffled by it
because it appeared to fall between two stools, neither opera
nor operetta. Producers therefore preferred to stage Puccini’s
more sure-fire hits which must have disappointed Puccini because
he had a special affection for La Rondine Fuller background
details of La Rondine together with reviews of competitive
audio recordings of the opera can be seen by clicking on the
link at the beginning of this sentence.
It was Gheorghiu and Alagna who championed La Rondine
and really put it on the map with their sensationally successful
production at Covent Garden and their follow-up 1997 EMI audio
set which won Gramophone's top award as their 'Recording
of the Year' The good news is that EMI has just re-released
the audio recording.
After so many years of neglect, scorn and misunderstanding,
it is quite amazing that no fewer than four DVDs of La Rondine
have appeared in recent years.
Of these four, two disappointed and two - including this one
- enchanted. Strange that the two disappointments – both ugly
modern treatments came from European opera houses while the
two winning ones came from America. Perhaps bigger American
budgets allow more sumptuous productions?
Of the two European issues, the Naxos DVD of the production
from the Puccini Festival Opera at Torre del Largo was quite
simply too dreadful to contemplate and I will spare readers
by not drawing attention to it. The other from Venice’s La
Fenice Opera was not so bad but it was disappointing; one
of my complaints concerned the nightmarish vision of Bulliers
nightclub - the setting for Act II - which really disturbs.
Surely Puccini envisaged the 19th century elegance
and romance of Bullier’s chandelier-illuminated ballroom leading
out onto lantern-lit, perfumed gardens. Instead we have a crass
mid-20th century realization: huge neon figures of
half-naked dancing girls and an on-stage VW van dispensing food
and drink. To add to the incongruity the stage is invaded by
Vespas and Lambrettas and men and women looking, for the most
part, too old to pass as students.
Quite the opposite of these awful realisations is the Washington
Opera production with Ainhoa Arteta as Magda and Marcus Haddock
as Ruggero on a 2009 Decca DVD (074 3335). Sets and costumes
are traditional and as Puccini would have approved. As my colleague,
Nick Barnard remarked, “... 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.”
Nick Barnard looked forward to the emergence of the Met production
and now here it is.
Review of the Metropolitan Opera Production
with Gheorghiu and Alagna
Briefly, this is a ‘tart with a heart’ story. Magda is a high
class Parisian courtesan. She dreams of romantic love with a
young man; her protector, Rambaldo, is a dull. elderly man of
finance. A young student, Ruggero, arrives at Rambaldo’s house
and is seen by Magda who is immediately attracted to him. He
does not see her. Later, she goes to a night spot dressed as
an innocent young girl and there meets Ruggero. They fall in
love, so much so that she decides to leave the comforts of Rambaldo’s
nest for her new love. In the last Act they are blissfully happy
on the Riviera but their money is running out. Then Ruggero
wants to marry Magda, have children and have her meet his parents.
Magda is in a panic worried that her past will catch up with
her. Devastated, she decides to give up Ruggero for his own
sake, and return to Rambaldo. A sub-plot involves the romance
between Lisette, Magda’s flirtatious maid and one of her friends,
Prunier, whose claims that romantic love is now the rage in
Paris, start the whole action.
Puccini set his opera in mid-19th Century Paris but
Nicolas Joël’s production is placed in Paris in the early 1920s.
I have no difficulty with this transfer because it was a period
that would have been familiar to Puccini - he died in 1924.
The art-deco sets are gorgeous; so too are the costumes. The
lighting, at times, might seem a little subdued but this a very
minor criticism. The apache dancing in Bullier’s is very high-spirited
and the whole of Act II is full of joie de vivre. As
mentioned above it was the championship of La Rondine
by Gheorghiu and Alagna that has made this lovely work so popular.
Some 12 years on, the chemistry is still strong between them,
making their romance, especially in Act II, so endearing and
affecting. Gheorghiu really feels her role and immerses herself
completely in the plight of Magda. Remember that this was a
live transmission from the Met. It was announced beforehand
that Gheorghiu had a bad cold but she pluckily resolved to perform
for her vast audience. Cold or not her singing never disappoints.
She rises securely to her top notes and how she caresses those
love songs. Her duets with Alagna are rapturous. Alagna looks
rather too old to be a young naïve student and his early Act
I singing is a little hesitant but things improve very quickly
and he convinces totally both as the love-struck youth and the
heart-broken, disillusioned and angry young man in Act III.
Marius Brenciu excels as the debonair, Prunier, besotted but
exasperated by the coquettish Lisette. And Lisette Oropesa as
this naughty maid nearly steals the show with her cheeky affectations.
One of the highlights of this production is the sublime Act
II quartet singing by all four principals in praise of love.
Under Marco Armiliato’s direction the Metropolitan Orchestra
and Chorus give heartfelt support.
Although this production must top the list of available DVDs
of La Rondine, Decca’s Washington Opera production, set
in the right time period, again with lovely sets and costumes.
It has many delightful touches like the playful conceits of
having ‘Liszt’ playing piano instead of Prunier in Act I and
‘Paganini’ playing the violin at Pruniers. I could not part
with either of these DVDs.
Sheer joy – this is a wonderful, practically peerless production
of Puccini’s long-neglected La Rondine.