‘La Rondine’ – ‘The Swallow’ Comes Back Home to Roost, But Misses the Nest

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Kristine Opolais in La Rondine (wqxr.org)
Kristine Opolais (in red) in La Rondine (wqxr.org)

Giacomo Puccini’s body of work, to include the likes of Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, Il Trittico, and the lavishly produced Turandot, takes pride of place in the repertory of the world’s major opera houses. Incredible as it may seem, however, even the sophisticated and well-traveled composer would, on occasion, stoop down to a somewhat “lower-browed” level by populating his dramas with outlandishly fussy types: the finicky Sacristan in Tosca, the tipsy landlord in La Bohème, the laconic Red Indian Billy Jackrabbit and his squaw Wowkle in Fanciulla, the rag-picker Frugola in Il Tabarro, and the moneygrubbing relations of Gianni Schicchi, his only full-fledged comedy.

Where the Tuscan master may have gone astray was in trying to steer a middle course between romance and sentiment, in his Viennese-style opus La Rondine (“The Swallow”), broadcast on January 26, in the Nicolas Joël production that previously appeared in 2008-2009 with the former “love couple,” Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna.

Neither terribly romantic nor especially sentimental, La Rondine tries hard to be all things to all people, but winds up satisfying no one. Is it a tragedy, a comedy, or an uneasy combination of the two? It’s hard to tell at times. What “light comedy” we have is mostly of the Die Fledermaus sort (society folk dressing up as working-class stiffs). This business doesn’t always pan out the way the composer intended – there’s just too much here that’s overly reminiscent of La Bohème for comfort – but the music is waltz-time heaven.

Puccini had high hopes his Italian take on Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier would be a big-seller. Such was not the case: the work has never been a repertoire favorite and, most likely, never will. Still, the good news is the Met has done the opera justice – indeed, more justice than it probably deserves.  It’s rather unfortunate, though, since this tuneful one-off is quite appealing in its own way, if one keeps those expectations low.

Kristine Opolais as Magda (minnesota.publicradio.org)
Kristine Opolais as Magda (minnesota.publicradio.org)

This holds true for the radio cast. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais had a rough start as Magda, our “swallow” of the title. Leave it to Puccini to provide his female lead with one of his most daunting opening airs, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” heard in countless TV and radio advertisements. It’s a gorgeous tune, no doubt about it, and first introduced by the secondary tenor character Prunier (warmly sung by Marius Brenciu) via a uniquely arranged piano solo (a rarity in opera). Magda picks up the thread and carries the melody on through to its rapturous conclusion.

The difficulty, then, lies in the soft pianissimo passages that occur high up in the soprano’s upper register, which Opolais delivered louder than one would expect. Her second number, “Ore dolci e divine,” which took place a few minutes later in the scene, went better, with the soprano sounding looser and more relaxed than before.

It may have been broadcast debut nerves, but from here on she gave a fairly decent traversal of this role. Nothing really spectacular, I might add, but decent nonetheless; ditto for primo tenore Giuseppe Filianoti as Ruggero, Magda’s soon to be live-in lover. In parts of Act I and throughout most of Act III, the plot takes on the familiar form of Verdi’s La Traviata, which many musicologists feel La Rondine most closely resembles, but without the consumptive death scene near the end. Both Opolais and Filianoti came into their own here, a welcome change of pace from what went on earlier.

Ruggero is the Alfredo Germont character: he’s young and innocent, full of life and full of naiveté, especially where his newfound “girlfriend” is concerned. Little does he know that the beautiful and seemingly virtuous Magda is, in realty, a high-priced call girl. Eventually learning of her former profession in her farewell speech, Ruggero is visibly devastated by the revelation, but wants to marry her anyway. Magda adamantly refuses, and gives up her idyllic life with Ruggero to return to the big city. Close curtain. It’s an abrupt and totally unsatisfying ending.

Opolais & Giuseppe Filianoti (minnesota-publicradio.org)
Opolais & Giuseppe Filianoti (minnesota.publicradio.org)

Filianoti has been around the operatic block, including a memorable stint as Edgardo in the Met’s Lucia di Lammermoor broadcast, and online as Faust in Gian Carlo Del Monaco’s Palermo production of Boito’s Mefistofele. My general impression of his voice, as well as his stage deportment on YouTube, has not changed. The possessor of a strikingly open timbre (Giuseppe Di Stefano is a good comparison), it is woefully unsupported and slightly colorless at that. Filianoti has a tendency to bray on high notes, and the role of Ruggero is nothing if not full of high notes.

In addition, he strays too casually off pitch at the most inopportune times. As a result, he too had a rough patch in the early going. However, after taking an hour or so to warm up, Filianoti eventually hit his stride, managing to pull off a spectacular Act II close (so similar to the ones in Acts I and III of La Bohème). His duet with Opolais won the audience over. Still, it was hit or miss with him. Don’t get me wrong: Filianoti never truly disappoints, but one’s not always sure of the ultimate outcome.

The other roles, as ungrateful and unfulfilling as some of them are (Puccini was guilty of compositional oversight in this piece), were taken by the perky Anna Christy as a lively Lisette; Monica Yunus, Janinah Burnett and Margaret Thompson as the trio of Yvette, Bianca and Suzy, respectively; and Dwayne Croft as the rich old sugar-daddy Rambaldo, as unrewarding a baritone part as Puccini ever wrote. This character could have been the vocal and histrionic equivalent of Giorgio Germont (the possibilities for conflict are endless), but neither he nor the librettists ever bothered to provide even the barest hint of an opportunity for the singer to strut his stuff. Poor put-upon Croft simply melted into the background.

Ion Marin conducted with generous pacing and consideration for his singers. There was nothing really wrong with this performance, or with the production as a whole. It was dutiful and exceedingly workmanlike, but nothing special – much like the opera itself. I happen to love most of Puccini’s oeuvre, but La Rondine has yet to grow on me. All in all, it was good that this “Swallow” came back home to roost; unfortunately, it missed the nest.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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