Review: La rondine (Opera Holland Park)

London’s own ‘country house’ company presents its third staging of Puccini’s light-ish opera

Stephen Aviss as Prunier and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Magda in La rondine (OHP)
Stephen Aviss as Prunier and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Magda in La rondine (OHP)
© Robert Workman

Cigarettes, eh? The devil's snouts. In Opera Holland Park's stylish new production of La rondine, the only discernible concession to a dissolute demi-monde is those little tubes of wickedness that everyone smokes in Magda's salon. But hey, it is the 1950s.

With its appealing score and plentiful earworms, La rondine is Puccini's most popular little-known opera. As George Hall notes in an excellent programme article it has, extraordinarily, never been staged by ENO, WNO or Scottish Opera. On the other hand OHP, eternal champions of this repertoire, are now onto their third account – and this one is glorious. A visual and musical feast, it warms the spirit like spritzer on a sunny day.

A weak storyline is La rondine's downfall, because not only are the opera's tensions feebly manufactured, all the main characters end up back where they started. If drama deals in journeys, theirs get stuck on a ring road. Magda, a society hostess given to dalliance, falls for innocent young Ruggero, assumes a fake identity and sets up house with him. When push comes to shove, she lets him go because she reckons her flighty background will bring shame on his family. And that's it.

In compensation, the score has all the colour and appeal of an operetta without actually being one. "Chi il bel sogno" is up there with Puccini's greatest arias even though it's done and dusted in the first quarter-hour, the second-act waltz is an uplifting showstopper, and the rush of late love duets all hit the spot.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans has updated Puccini's Belle Époque opera most attractively, if to little purpose, with a trio of great sets by takis that switcheroo with panache. The transformation from Act 1 to Act 2 is a blinder. But there are stutters along the way, such as the crashed first entrance of Ruggero (the bell-like tenor of Matteo Lippi is one of the production's great assets) and the incongruity of a scruff like this Prunier (Stephen Aviss) correcting the dress sense of Tereza Gevorgyan's infectiously well characterised maid, Lisette.

The ever-splendid City of London Sinfonia, whose annual residence is one of the company's outstanding boasts, played the score for all its worth under Matthew Kofi Waldren's elegantly energised baton. Yes, they smothered the expository exchanges that follow the OHP Chorus's rousing rendition of the great waltz (here set in a portside dive rather than the opera's Maxim's-like boîte de nuit) but there was little else to fault.

To ice the cake in shades of yellow and scarlet, Elizabeth Llewellyn sang Magda with a voice of pure operatic joy. Her soprano timbre, rich, powerful and faintly smoky, was irresistibly seductive and multi-layered, and somehow she found heartbreak in the score's simplicities.

Llewellyn is an exceptional artist who oozes star quality and ought to be top of the 'grab' list for any half-decent UK casting director, but for some reason isn't. Don't miss this too-rare opportunity to hear her: she's a great singer at the peak of her craft.

La rondine continues in repertory at Opera Holland Park until 23 June.