Puccini’s ‘other’ Paris opera gets a rare outing in the bucolic surroundings of London’s Holland Park. Like the contemporaneous Gianni Schicchi it has become famous for a single aria, and ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ is despatched twice over within the first ten minutes. After that we’re on our own, so the rest had better be good – and it is. Low on complexity it may be, but La rondine (‘the swallow’) is as catchy as anything the old roué – or indeed Andrew Lloyd Webber – ever wrote. Conductor Peter Selwyn and the City of London Sinfonia certainly make a passionate case for it in their fine account of the score.
Amid the visual wash of green and cream pastel shades in Act One, our heroine Magda’s dubious moral status is vouchsafed to the audience not through text (librettist Giuseppe Adami is unhelpfully coy about her profession) but through the crimson-and-gold slash of her entrance gown. Ah, we surmise, here is a proper scarlet woman. Theatrical red meat ahead.
If only. Instead, La rondine ranks as one of the most dramatically anaemic operas in the catalogue – and that, rather than any musical shortcoming, explains its relative neglect. Characters are sketched rather than etched, and the mini-tragedy at the opera’s heart is puny. Get a grip, Magda: you may be little more than a reformed courtesan but this bloke Ruggero loves you to pieces, so deal with it you silly girl.
There are two possible approaches to addressing this dramatic vacuum: either kick some relevance into it (Nazi death camp, anyone? Prep school dormitory?) or else make it work on its own terms. Director Tom Hawkes adopts the latter course with a colourful evocation of Belle époque Paris, superbly realised in sets by Peter Rice that would do sterling service for a revival of Gigi.
It’s chic, sweet and static. ‘Chez Bullier’, the location for Act Two, is Café Momus revisited – all that’s missing is Parpignol’s parade of children – and the outstanding Opera Holland Park Chorus sings its climactic moment with heart-churning brilliance. If Magda is La bohème’s Musetta, her rejected lover Rambaldo (a superbly sung cameo from Nicholas Todorovic) is Alcindoro. The seaside setting of the final act, by contrast, is as cheerless as the opera’s faux-tragedy.
Kate Ladner is a secure Magda who projects vocal strength and as much inner fascination as the material allows. There is an earthbound quality to her performance, however; she sings the notes well but without transcendency. As Ruggero, Seán Ruane has golden moments in the mid to upper register, but he short-changes the money notes.
The supporting leads fare better. Hal Cazalet squeezes every drop of comic sympathy from the character of Prunier, Magda’s platonic poet friend, while the turn of the night comes from Hye-Youn Lee as the hyper-active maid, Lisette. Intentionally or not, the casting of an Asian singer in this role serves to accentuate the curious Butterfly effect that Puccini incorporates into her touching duet with Prunier, ‘T’amo!/Menti!’.
La rondine melts the heart from start to finish. As Verismo opera it’s well short of the mark, but as vintage operetta it’s a sparkling Italian secco with a twist of Léhar. Just the thing on a sunny summer evening, and not so bad on a wet one either.
- Mark Valencia