Puccini’s Viennese operetta La Rondine has never quite established itself as part of the canon of Puccini’s works. Originally intended for the Carlstheater in Vienna Puccini set to work in autumn of 1913, initially with enthusiasm but later with great difficulty, and when it was finished in spring 1916 the Great War was raging and Italy had entered the hostilities against Austria-Hungary. Thus the premiere was in Monte-Carlo in March 1917. The reception was positive but compared to the other nine mature operas of Puccini it has rarely been a box-office success. Puccini was also, it seems, not quite satisfied with it and reworked it several times and when he died he had not yet decided on which version was the definitive. I have to admit that every time I’ve seen or heard it I’ve found more and more to admire, and even though the first act is a bit long-winded – as are several of his other works – the rest of it utterly attractive, melodically and harmonically. Part of the music points forward to Turandot, elsewhere there are reminiscences of both Tosca and Butterfly. His aim to please the lighter-minded public led him to include dance rhythms of the day like tango, which today is comme-il-faut – and should have been also a century ago. The present Munich production was mounted in 2015, so it isn’t really a centenary celebration, but since I doubt there will be another recording within the next few years this one will do perfectly well – with some small reservations that I’ll come back to before long.
Though allegedly a live recording from the Prinzregententheater there are actually no signs of disturbances in the shape of audience reactions or stage noises. The aural picture is excellent with good balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra and conductor Ivan Repušić draws splendid playing and singing from his forces. Not least the opening chorus of act II is stunningly performed, lively and rhythmically alert, and he has the idiomatic sweeping lilt for the Viennese waltz in the same act. It is indeed far from the ‘Bad Lehár’ that the publisher Riccordi claimed it to be when Puccini offered him the work. Honestly there are so many delicious numbers in this opera that it is a shame it isn’t played more frequently. Everybody knows the first act Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, which in the original isn’t just a soprano aria but a full scene with Prunier, Magda and a lot of comprimarios. But for me the show-stopper is the quartet with chorus near the end of act II, Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso. I have pointed out before that there are obvious melodic similarities between this and Nora’s Theme from Korngold’s 1946 Hollywood film Of Human Bondage. Whether Korngold actually heard the opera or it is just a coincidence is hard to know, but to me this is overwhelming music.
There is a crowd of comprimario singers involved and generally speaking they are well up to the requirements. Of the five central characters, veteran bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering is in excellent form as the old Rambaldo – though suitably elderly-sounding. The secondary couple Lisette and Prunier are superiorly sung and acted by Evelin Novak and Álvaro Zambrano, the former a glittering lyric soprano, singing with great charm, the latter an agreeably nuanced lyric tenor who never overtaxes his beautiful voice. Yosep Kang who sports a well-schooled lirico spinto tenor is a near-ideal Ruggero; singing with great feeling in for instance Dimmi che vuoi seguirmi in the last act and elsewhere a stylish and sympathetic partner to Magda. Their duet in act II, Perchč mai cercate di saper, is marvellously warm and deeply felt. In some other places it is about Elena Moşuc that I am a bit hesitant. She has a very beautiful voice, her technique is impeccable and one of my favourite recital discs is a Mozart disc issued by Arte Nova quite long ago. But fairly early she adopted a vibrato that disfigured her singing unnecessarily much. I complained about this when reviewing a recording of Lehár’s operetta Schön ist die Welt, recorded as long ago as 2005, and here, ten years later when she was just past 50, it can’t be left out of account. Actually I found it less prominent this time, and much of her singing is very beautiful and nuanced – listen to Oggi lascia che ancor (CD 2 tr. 2), another show-stopper – but since I know that vibrato is something that divides opinions, I feel it my duty to point this out.
Full marks for the textbook with full libretto and German translations – ideally I suppose many readers with limited knowledge of German would have preferred an English translation as well – and valuable synopsis and background information plus artists bios – all of this in English as well.
The EMI – now Warner Classics – recording under Pappano with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (review) is still a first recommendation, but the present set has a lot to offer and, with the slight reservation I’ve made, should satisfy also demanding readers.
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