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The Airy Trifle Which Became a Real Opera

New York
Metropolitan Opera
12/31/2008 -  & Januray 3*, 7, 10, 13, February 11, 14, 19, 23, 26, 2009
Giacomo Puccini: La rondine
Angela Gheorghiu (Magda), Lisette Oropesa (Lisette) Roberto Alagna (Ruggero) Marius Brenciu (Prunier), James Courtney (Rambaldo), Monica Yunus (Yvette), Alyson Cambridge (Bianca), Elizabeth DeShong (Suzy), Ashley Emerson (A Singer), David Won (Perichaud), Tony Stevenson (Gobin), David Crawford (Crébillon), Jason Hendrix (A Butler), Anne Nonnemacher (Georgette), Belinda Oswald (Gabriele), Mary Hughes (Lolette), Marty Singleton (Adolf)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Nicolas Joel (Production), Stephen Barlow (Staging), Ezio Frigerio (Set Designer), Franca Squarciapino (Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer)

Like the aerodynamic law which dictates that the bumblebee is unable to fly, the rules of Puccini operas say that La Rondine is an operatic failure. Bumblebees do fly, and—with the right staging and the right cast—La rondine is a perfect dream of an opera.

The Met obviously had the right pair of lovers in Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna (the Angelina and Brad of serious music), but this production has some beautiful sets, some wonderful secondary roles, and—most essential of all—conductor Marco Armiliato. Unlike some recent conductors here, Maestro Armiliato not only gave the clearest beats, not only followed each singers every move, but offered the orchestral color, one of the few assets to the opera as a whole.

Nobody has ever said that La rondine was great Puccini, but hearing it in full, the tricks become all too apparent. A pair of gorgeous set pieces is not enough to fill even the relatively brief three acts. Too many arias begin like Sigmund Romberg and are saved only by Puccini’s emotional modulations, which offer the illusion—oh, okay, the magical illusion—that it is great music. Puccini could write a terrific waltz or two (witness Bohème’s Musetta), but in attempting to outdo Rosenkavalier, as he stated, the waltzes here are flaccid. The meter is willing but the flash is weak.

The character of heroine Magda’s sugar daddy, Rambaldo, is that of an undeveloped saint. The reason for the separation of the lovers at the end is too insipid and irrational for belief. Etc etc.

Except that this Met production really transcends every single one of those problems. The first act’s great diva aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta potė indovinar?” is not only splendid in itself, but we are so used to the soprano solo that only the full opera can show how Magda organically continues it (and brings it back at the end of the act). As for the “toasting song” of Act II, this is the contrapuntal Puccini at his highest powers, with the quartet and the chorus each bringing up richer and richer music. If the characters are not especially interesting, they are more humane, less melodramatic than the more successful Puccini opera people.

The production conceived by Nicolas Joel but in his illness, directed by Stephen Barlow, is as light as an operetta. The time has been brought up 70 years to the Flapper 1920’s, with Art Deco backgrounds to match. The opening party scene has the Bright Young Things dressed in glittering short skirts and formal men’s wear, the lighting is sharp, the movements are stylized to such a happy degree that one expects a Charleston to replace a waltz.

(And oh, how the mind takes off, conceiving of a Puccini Charleston!)

The Second Act has the look of the university tavern (with some college suitors of Magda quite hilarious). The third act is supposed to take place on the terrace of a “small home”, but the greenhouse is so vast that one is liable to guffaw when the two speak of their money woes.

The best part is that not a single role is lacking in musical good sense. Ms. Gheorghiu is incapable is disappointing. She looks like the silent film star Clara Bow, but she sings—the great aria or even throwaway lines like “Who would ever recognize me?” with passion, with emotion, and with that wonderful dusky soprano. Her opposite, Mr. Alagna begins to show his stuff not in an aria but two duets. First when they dance (“In the soft caresses of the dance”), and later, the finale duet, where the two must part. Here, they sing, with an honest passion, honest emotion, a double richness of the most mellifluous voices.

The other couple were charming and, in the case of Lisette Oropesa as Lisette hilarious. Marius Brenciu did make a stolid (if rather unpoetic) poet, but Ms. Oropesa, with her faultless effortless First Act cavatina, was (no other word for it) terrific. Nor can one forget James Courtney, who took the place of an ailing Samuel Ramey, as the rich man who forgives and forgives. Not much to sing, but his bearing was both aristocratic and resigned.

But once again we come to Marco Armiliato and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Even in the most insignificant moments (and there were many), he kept the ensemble moving, he paid rapt attention to his singers, and, in the best—if rarest—tradition of opera, he turned a dandrified trifle into a full-scale delight.

Harry Rolnick



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