La Rondine

Giacomo Puccini
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

After the first couple of bars of the overture you think, "This isn't Puccini." Indeed, it could be Franz Lehár or Rudolf Friml. It has a definite Viennese operetta feel to it. Then, when the first act starts (with a fine emsemble piece), you might be forgiven for giving way to a sense of déja vu: surely a soirée in the house of a Parisian courtesan who is clearly no longer quite as devoted to her "ami", the banker Rambaldo Fernandez, as she should be, reminds us more than a little of Traviata, especially when a young man, Ruggero, arrives for whom the courtesan, Magda de Civry, feels an immediate strong attraction?

Then, at the end of the first act, Magda's pert (and impertinent) maid Lisette "borrows" her mistress' finery to go out for a night at Bullier's, only to be followed by her mistress who had dressed down for the same excursion. Shades of Fledermaus!

Well, someone did once say that, while copying from one source is plaigiarism, from more than one is research.

It would, indeed, be foolish to deny all the similarities, but really they don't matter because Puccini makes the story his own. And the story is a tragic one, but not the sort of tragedy which is tempered by the reuniting of the lovers before the death of Violetta in La Traviata or of Mimi in La Bohème: here both lovers are left alive, but split apart for ever by Ruggero's disgust and outrage at his discovery of Magda's past. We know there is no chance of reconciliation like that of Rosalinde and Gabriel Eisenstein or even of Alfredo and Violetta. She collapses in despair. All that is left is a return to her old life and the wreckage of her short-lived dream of happiness.

But what of the music? In spite of the operetta-like overture and the fact that it is very melodic (Puccini thought it would go well in London because "it's a melodious opera"), there are moments of enormous power in the Magda/Ruggero duets, and the ending of Act II is very reminiscent of the end of the first act of Bohème. Also impressive is Puccini's handling of the crowd scene which is Act II, where the focus and the music flows from the ensemble to small groups to duets and back again seemlessly and effortlessly. Again Bohème (also Act II) springs to mind.

It's a great tear-jerker - as many operas are - but it has a much harder edge than most.

I found the design (by Bruno Schwengl) quite fascinating: the first act setting is dark and opulent, with suggestions of Manet and Monet paintings half hidden on the rear wall. The lighting (Colin Smith) is dim but warm. Candles glow and a fire, hidden by the grand piano which dominates the salon, flickers in the background. Against this setting the frivolity of Parisian society and, in particular, its cultural representative, the poet Prunier is shown.

Act II - the Café Bullier - is reminiscent of Seurat and its brightness contrasts well with the previous setting. But it is in Act III that we have a real contrast in every sesne of the word. As the curtain rises on the pure white set, the light is so bright that for a moment it is almost blinding. On stage right Magda and Ruggero, also both in white, lounge together, relaxed and happy, whilst downstage left we have a suggestion of what is to come. A plinth on which stands just the feet of a statue of Venus: on the ground beside it lie the body and, a few feel away, the head. A greater contrast with the first act could not be imagined, but the greatest contrast is yet to come: the misery which will engulf the characters.

Janis Kelly is Magda. She acts as well as she sings, and she sings superbly. Whether wistful or passionate, the power of her acting and her voice sweep the audience along. Surely Magda doesn't get any better than this? Gail Pearson has great fun in the as the first two acts as her maid Lisette and her misery in the third act at the failure of her debut as a singer is soon swept away by being welcomed back by her mistress, only to be plunged into far deeper misery by what happens to Magda. Pearson convinces all the way.

As does Alan Oke as Prunier. He is light-hearted, slightly mocking (even knowing) and his voice is effortless. As Rambaldo, Peter Savidge is almost grim, making us realise why Magda yearns for real romance. And he is never so convincing as when, in the third act, he hurries off-stage, pausing momentarily to throw his wallet onto the statue's plinth to support the woman who has yet again rejected him.

I was not, however, so convinced by Rafael Rojas' Ruggero. He sings beautifully but he lacked a certain lightness of touch in the more romantic moments, although he came into his own when he discovers how he has been (by his lights) betrayed.

It's the first time I have seen La Rondine. It's not what one mighht call archetypal Puccini but it dserves to be performed more often than it has been. Opera lovers in the three areas to which the production moves (Hull on 26th May, Sheffield on 2nd June and Aberdeen on 15th and 16th June) should grab this rare opportunity to see it.

"La Rondine" plays at Newcastle again on Saturday 20th May

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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