DVD OF THE MONTH
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La Rondine (1917)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano) – Magda; Lisette Oropesa (soprano) – Lisette; Roberto Alagna (tenor) – Ruggero; Marius Brenciu (tenor) – Prunier; Samuel Ramey (bass) – Rambaldo; and several others; Steven Eldredge (piano solo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Marco Armiliato
rec. live, HD transmission, 10 January 2009
Production: Nicolas Joël; Staged by Stephen Barlow; Set Designer: Ezio Frigerio; Costume Designer: Franca Squarciapino; Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Director for video: Brian Large; Host: Renée Fleming
Bonus: Backstage at the Met with Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Lisette Oropesa and Marius Brenciu
Colour; NTSC System 16:9; Disc Format DVD-9; Sound Formats: LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 31618 9 2 [114:00 + 8:00 bonus]
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 by 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.” Quite so.
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.
Sheer joy - this is a wonderful, practically peerless production of Puccini’s long-neglected La Rondine.