La Rondine tends to be treated as something of an also-ran in the Puccini canon, which, to this Puccini sceptic, makes it pretty much a non-starter. It's his most operetta-like work - in tone, though not structure - which it is tempting to describe as a bit like La Traviata re-written by Franz Lehár. Opera North's production - Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK, 8 November 2023 - had all the company's usual flair, so it must be just me.
After an orchestral introduction that sounded, briefly, like a blend of Eric Coates and Ivor Novello, La Rondine pitches us into a Parisian society party, just the start of the parallels with La Traviata. The evening is hosted by Magda, mistress of an older man, Rambaldo. Prunier, a poet, holds court, pontificating about romantic love, and telling Magda that she will fly away like a swallow in search of it. Rambaldo produces a gauche young man, Ruggero, who everyone decides should be introduced to Paris's night-life. In Act II, we're in Bullier's, a restaurant and night-club. Magda and Ruggero fall in love, and decide to run away together.
But in Act III, while he's been writing to his mother for her blessing on him marrying Magda, Magda is wrestling with a dilemma - should she tell him about her past, which he knows nothing about, or try to keep it from him? Eventually, she decides to return to her old life, leaving him heartbroken.
As Magda, Galina Averina clings to her hopes for genuine love in her Act I 'swallow' aria, from which the opera takes its title. Sébastien Guèze's Ruggero cuts a convincingly youthful, callow figure. Their interaction, physically and vocally, is faultless. Elgan Llŷr Thomas catches Prunier self-aggrandising, while Claire Lees is sparky as Magda's maid, Lisette, with whom he flirts. Philip Smith gives Rambaldo gravitas, while Pasquale Orchard (Yvette), Kathryn Sharpe (Bianca) and Laura Kelly-McInroy (Suzy) are a lively group of Magda's friends.
Conductor Kerem Hasan brings conviction to the score, and the Opera North orchestra and chorus respond appropriately. James Hurley's production is set in the 1930s; Leslie Travers (set) and Gabrielle Dalton (costumes) ensure that it looks a treat, and Lauren Poulton's choreography is a joy to watch. The Act II set is dominated by a vase of flowers so tall that you fear for its safety, and if someone told me that it was symbolic, I wouldn't have been at all surprised.
But, as always, sadly, Puccini's music left me completely cold. In particular, the big ensemble number in praise of love, near the end of Act II, is so over-the-top that I couldn't take it seriously, and I was dreading the Act going out with it. Instead, fortunately, as it winds down, Magda and Ruggero are left alone, and we get a glimpse of the more interesting opera this could have been. But, for me, it is scuppered by Puccini's insistent grandstanding, and the emotions stubbornly remain manufactured and superficial.
Copyright © 17 November 2023