Puccini composed a dozen operas and several of them are dominant perennial favorites. Some of them do not do as well as others and his eighth, La Rondine, falls short in the popularity stakes at least when compared to La Bohème and Madama Butterfly.
La Rondine may fairly be described as Opera Lite and the fact that the Metropolitan Opera which stages Puccini’s works with unfailing regularity left LR on the shelf for about seventy years until 2009 provides a clue as to the work’s appeal.
The production directed by Nicolas Joël and conducted by Marco Armiliato with an all-star cast may be as good as one can get. Soprano Angela Gheorghiu and her then husband tenor Roberto Alagna headed the cast as the two star-crossed lovers Maga and Ruggero. The opera is called a lyric comedy but there are not too many laughs especially at the end.
Joël with Set Designer Ezio Frigerio and Costume Designer Franca Squarciapino sets the opera in the 1920s from the original mid-nineteenth century French Second empire. There is a certain amount of elegance without ostentation and functionality without diminished high class. The first set is in Magda’s well-appointed apartment in Paris where she and her supporter Rambaldo (the ever-sonorous Samuel Ramey) are entertaining friends. The second scene is in a crowded, high-end bar and the third in a house by the sea in Nice where the lovers enjoy their love and meet the inevitable denouement.
Franca Squarciapino’s costumes are Parisian haute couture of the period and are always a delight to watch.
Magda is a courtesan “supported” by the banker Rambaldo. The party at her house is attended by her friends, pretty girls politely called grisettes and Rambaldo’s banker friends who may we say invest in pretty girls. Enter Ruggero, a naïve young man from the country. Result: passionate, blissful, eternal love between Magda and Ruggero. Well, perhaps. What is his mother going to say if she finds out what Magda did before meeting Ruggero? And what about Ruggero finding out? Does this sound like something from La Traviata?
Magda has a sassy maid called Lisette (sung by the vivacious Lisette Oropesa) who is pursued by the poet Prunier (the splendid tenor Marius Brenciu). She puts on her mistress’s clothes and goes to a party incognito. Didn’t we see that in Die Fledermaus?
Alagna ’s tenor voice takes flight when necessary and is passionate and lyrical as required as the naïve Ruggero. Gheorghiu’s lovely voice and sensual appearance provide a superb representation of the kept woman who seeks love.
The close shots on the television or the large screen in the cinema can be a blessing and a curse. In the opera house you will never get the detailed look that is shown by a closeup. Alagna was 46 and Gheorghiu 44 when the performance was recorded, and they did not look as if they were in the first blush of youth. Gheorghiu looks attractive and realistic as Magda, a woman who had to work hard to maintain a lifestyle as the property of a man or men. Alagna’s Ruggero was not quite as young as we could wish. None of this would matter in the opera house but it may be worth mentioning.
This week the Met served up a veritable Puccini Festival. During the week of September 21 to 27, 2020 the lineup consisted of La Rondine, La Fanciulla del West, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot and La Bohème. How is that for fighting Covid-19?
But we are a long way from defeating the virus. The Met just announced that it is cancelling the 2020 – 2021 season in its entirety. The 2021 - 2022 season will open on September 27, 2021. That is a long time from now.
The opener will be Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first opera by an an African American composer to be performed at the Met. There will be more, much more but there is no cure for the lengthy waiting.
The 2009 Met production of La Rondine by Giacomo Puccini was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on September 21 and 22, 2020 For more information visit www.metopera.org