Puccini’s La Rondine (The Swallow) is at Leeds Grand Theatre on 24, 26 and 28 October, then touring until 17 November.
To refer to La Rondine as Puccini’s Cinderella opera is something of an understatement. Premiered in 1917, with Puccini at the height of his creative powers, the successes of Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly already established, for a long time it fared barely better than his very earliest output of La Vili and Edgar in terms of performance tallies. The New York Met did not stage it until 1928 and London’s Covent Garden only came to it this century. Why is this so?
It is not the music, the organisation of which takes on familiar Puccinian hallmarks with which he had succeeded before: short, recognisable motifs identifying characters and their moods throughout the narrative, luscious extended melody lines, two glorious love duets and the Paris setting of the French Second Empire of the 1850s cemented by frequent orchestral reference to an unusually large number of dances – waltzes for sure, but also the more modern one-step, slow foxtrot and tango. It is undoubtedly an elegant score, with a large orchestra handled most delicately and assuredly, a refined development, his writing now freed from any hint of melodramatic excess.
Nor is the scarcity of productions down to rejection by singers or audiences. The very first performance involved Tito Schipa, no less, as Ruggero and Gilda Dalla Rizza, the verismo specialist and Puccini’s favourite soprano, as Magda.
The plot strikes us as weak. Our heroine, Magda, is a kept woman, the mistress of rich banker, Rambaldo. She rejects him and the assumptive role in her life for the affections of young Ruggero, who is blissfully ignorant of her past. As he gets more serious about their relationship, with talk of marriage and babies, Magda, to save Ruggero’s reputation, turns away, her former life too scandalous for their future happiness to bear. This scheme, involving selfless sacrifice from the “tart with a heart of gold” certainly was not unknown in Opera, its most demonstrative realisation appearing in Verdi’s La Traviata, which was written in the 1850s. Perhaps, even by 1917, such suffocating social strictures were considered tame and old-fashioned, even for a storyline designed for the stage. Magda’s outspoken maid, Lisette, and Prunier, a lovelorn poet, provide a second romantic entanglement, one without such stifling barriers. Get over this disappointing, somewhat bewildering ending and you will certainly enjoy the evening.
Once more, Leslie Travers‘ sets provide perfect backdrops for the three Acts: Magda’s luxurious town house, a bustling Parisian restaurant and a Riviera love nest .
Opera North debutante, Galina Averina‘s Magda, oozes a worldly confidence. From the outset, one senses this Puccini heroine will not be dying for love as others have before her. She portrays her character with essential nonchalance, sophistication and musical certainty, the top Cs secure as she finishes the poet’s song to the delight of the assembled company. Later, in “Ore Dulce e Divine” (‘Sweet And Divine Hours’), she provides the musical peak of Act I.
Ruggero, by contrast, is less well served by the composer. He has an abundance of musically conversational exchanges and duetting with Magda, but the gentle Act II aria, “Dimmi che voi seguirmi alla mia casa” (‘Tell me you want to follow me to my house’) is the part’s only solo outing. French tenor, Sébastien Guèze, makes the most of Puccini’s oversight with a distinguished top range and a convincing portrayal of the sincere ardour of young love.
Having sung separately Mimi and Rodolfo in productions of La Bohème, their duet and departure arm-in-arm at the end of Act II here should seem like familiar territory. Lisette and Prunier make a similar exit at the end of Act I.
A notable feature of La Rondine is the Bohème-like quartet, for both pairs of lovers, with ensemble, which provides the musical climax of Act II. It begins with Ruggero’s tender opening “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” (‘I drink to your fresh smile’) and the ensuing blending of voices is most endearing.
Conductor Kerem Hasan glories in the sumptuous nature of the score, a vivid and refreshing contribution to the evening and, once more, the production is enhanced enormously, as were the first two operas of this season, by the excellent dance troupe, bringing an excitement all their own to the crowd scenes.
Sung in Italian, with English titles.
Presumably unique to this opening night, with an audience including national and local press, the Lord Lieutenant for West Yorkshire – the monarch’s appointee – and a member of the Shadow Cabinet, as the applause died down, Opera North’s retiring CEO, Sir Richard Mantle, appeared front-of-curtain to offer his thoughts.
Throughout our history, mankind’s ingenuity has seldom come up with anything so abiding and bounteous an art-form as Opera. From those who create it to those who perform it, it takes on new relevance for audiences of successive generations. Its presence in our cultural life is a cherishable totem of our civilisation, a legacy from our forebears and a treasure we should consider worthy to pass on to the future … and it employs lots and lots of highly-trained and gifted people: instrumentalists and vocalists, technicians in charge of stage props – their design, construction and moving – lighting and sound, costumes and wigs, projects and education, press and admin. …
Demob-happy, perhaps, Sir Richard continued by highlighting the plight of English National Opera, in many ways the birth mother of our beloved ON. Due to Arts Council England’s decision, last November, to remove ENO from the National Portfolio of funded organisations, the consequential budgetary cuts now mean forthcoming redundancies for its orchestra and chorus, besides backstage staff, those remaining being forced to accept part-time contracts and a resultant drastic loss of earnings. It is myopic thinking and it should be roundly condemned.
For this impudent addendum of flagrant politicising, he earned and received the loudest applause of the night.
Conductor Kerem Hasan, Director James Hurley, Set Designer Leslie Travers, Costume Designer Gabrielle Dalton, Lighting Designers Paule Constable/ Ben Pickersgill, Choreographer Lauren Poulton.
Photographs by Tristram Kenton provided by Opera North. Main image: Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Prunier, Claire Lees as Lisette, Galina Averina as Magda, Sébastien Guèze as Ruggero and the La rondine Company.