Friday, 23 March 2018

Puccini - La Rondine (Genoa, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - La Rondine

Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova - 2018

Giuseppe Acquaviva, Giorgio Gallione, Elena Rossi, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Marius Brenciu, Stefano Antonucci, Giuseppe De Luca, Didier Pieri, Davide Mura, Francesca Benitez, Marta Leung, Marina Ogii

TCF Streaming - 21 March 2018

It has some supporters - the Royal Opera House and Angela Gheorghiu among them - but for a work that comes in the midst of Puccini's mature period, La Rondine is surprisingly a mostly forgotten and neglected work. I entirely forgot about it myself when I assessed the strengths and weakness of Puccini's work post-Butterfly in my recent review of Turandot, but it's at least 15 years since the only time I saw the work performed - in Dublin - and despite it having Puccini's familiar melodic strengths, it's clearly not the most memorable work, and it's hard to see how it can be rehabilitated for a modern audience.

It's not that La Rondine is a bad opera as much as it feels like a misstep by Puccini, who uncharacteristically appears to look towards other operas for inspiration and direction rather than follow his own instincts. La Rondine comes across as an attempt to look back at Verdi's La Traviata and attempt to do for Paris what Strauss did for the glory days of Vienna in Der Rosenkavalier; taking a light operetta setting and likewise filling the score with dance melodies that are ironic and nostalgic at the same time. As lovely as it can look and sound, La Rondine nonetheless comes across as slight and superficial, with none of the same sense of engagement that Strauss and Hoffmansthal had with Der Rosenkavalier, and hence none of its sense of fun and sophistication.

Everywhere in La Rondine you get a sense of compromise - compromise that resulted in no less than three versions of the opera, as Puccini struggled to give it some shape and depth. Even the plot seems to only really superficially resemble the setting and action of La Traviata without really connecting to any true emotions or the social commentary that fired Verdi's response to the subject. La Rondine opens with the party of a courtesan, Magda. Amidst the scene-setting introductions to the characters, which present Puccini with a number of songs and dance melodies that he sets beautifully, Magda reflects on her position, and on a lost love in the past that a new visitor Ruggero has brought to mind. When the guests leave, she wonders whether she might still have a chance at love and, disguised as Paulette, she follows him to a night spot that had been recommended by some of the other guests.

Puccini can't but follow his own style however, and the scene at Bulliers in Act II of La Rondine owes more to La Bohème's Cafe Momus; the scene filled with life, glamour, colour and the promise of romance, no matter who you are or what your past is. Elsewhere, La Bohème likewise remains like a model imposed unsuccessfully over La Traviata as a way of treating the subject. In Act III, when 'Paulette' and Ruggero go to Nice to be free to love outside the constraints and gossip of Paris society, Puccini introduces a tension similar to Act III of La Bohème. Although like Violetta and Alfredo there are financial problems with this arrangement and a crisis of conscience for Magda who doesn't want to destroy the young man's reputation, her self-sacrifice here comes like Mimi's in the form of a decision to return to her wealthy benefactor Rambaldo in Paris, who loves her for who she is and can provide for her.

And Puccini, in the second version anyway, leaves things there, with none of the fire and fury of La Traviata, and none of the melodramatic and heart-rending deaths from tuberculosis scenes of either La Traviata or La Bohème. It might be refreshing to have the heroine live at the end, but it doesn't provide a strong narrative arc in the sense of love being taken through to death that makes Tosca, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly such perfect dramatic opera creations. Like Manon Lescaut, La Rondine feels like it's short of an Act that might better round out the drama, characterisation and bring some further emotional engagement with the characters and their situation. Without it, Puccini's music in La Rondine feels empty and perfunctory, just as Manon Lescaut feels over-elaborate for its slightness.

There is one respect in which Puccini is characteristically successful and that is his association of mid-19th century Paris with the idea of glamour, romance, music and colour. All of the characters constantly vaunt its charm in their conversations; its night-life, its writers, its music, its dancers, its women - a place where anything can happen and dreams can come true, but it's also a place that can turn the head of the unwary. It's also a place where for some who are supposedly living the dream, like Magda, it can bring social pressures and expectations that are hard to continue to live up to in opposition to one's deeper needs and nature, and the swallow (la rondine) needs to fly south. It's a rounded portrait of the attractions and pitfalls of the City of Lights, if not a socially realistic one, or even a La Bohème verismo one which the harsh deaths in La Bohème and La Traviata at least bring emphatically to the forefront.

Giorgio Gallione's production for Genoa captures the essence of both Paris and Nice well, as well as mark the contrasts between them, without having to rely on hackneyed Belle Epoque imagery. The period is updated to another stylish era that has echoes of the 1920s, albeit a little more hyperstylised and glamourised. There are plenty of party-goers and lots of dancers doing choreographed moves at Magda's party in Act I and at Bulliers in the colourful night club scenes of Act II, but it also manages to convey a sense that it is all forced, as the disguises and the contrasting behaviour between the couples of Magda and Ruggero and Prunier and Lisette suggest. Act III in Nice is also highly stylised, more open and easy going by Paris, but with a single fallen tree and sun terrace figures in the background, it also hints that pressures remain and all is not ideal for Magda and Ruggero.

I don't find Puccini's music for La Rondine particularly inspired, memorable or well-attuned to the dramatic action. It feels perfunctory in its distribution of arias, in its weaving of songs and dance melodies and rarely displays any of the composer's true character. It's performed well though by the Carlo Felice Genova orchestra under conductor Giuseppe Acquaviva, who keeps it light and buoyant. The singing certainly has its challenges, but they seem to be more in the bel canto register that you rarely find anywhere else in Puccini, although there are certainly dramatic and lyrical challenges in the role of Magda, which Elena Rossi sings very well. The lead tenor role doesn't particularly have great character to it in this opera, but Arturo Chacón-Cruz brings a romantic charm to Ruggero. and there's lively support from Giuliana Gianfaldoni's Lisette and Marius Brenciu as Prunier.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice, TCF Streaming