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La Rondine

by on 26 July 2021

Romantic Demons

La Rondine

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Adami

West Green House Opera, Theatre on the Lake, Hartley Wintney until 25th July 

Review by Mark Aspen

“Every soul contains a romantic demon”.  The whimsical words of Prunier, the romantic poet, “fondo d’ogni anima c’è un diavolo romantico”, casually tossed into the playful chatter at a Parisian society rendezvous, prove their prescience in the life of Magda de Civry, the party’s glamourous hostess.  Within her heart, there are four personalities, Magda, the self-assured courtesan; Doretta, the fictitious subject of poem that points to her heart’s desire; Paulette, her escapist alto ego; and La Rondine, the eponymous swallow that flies away but must always return.  

Giacomo Puccini

La Rondine is an opera that is unmistakably romantic.  After all, as Tony (Sir Antonio) Pappano says “Puccini does love like no other composer”.  And, I might add, Puccini does tear-jerking like no other composer.  Cio-Cio-San’s heartbreaking aria in Madama Butterfly, Un bel dì vedremo, as she waits in vain expecting to see the husband who has deserted her, or Mimì’s Sono andati in La Bohème, as she tells Rodolfo their love is her whole life, just as she dies of consumption, will have anyone in tears (even wizened old opera critics).   But in both these tragic operas the heroine dies.  In La Rondine no-one dies.  The final tragedy is an emotional tragedy. 

So, La Rondine is romantic and La Rondine is light-hearted (well mostly).  Hence, it is just the operatic diversion to be enjoyed on a summer’s evening in the idyllic new location of West Green House Opera’s theatre within the ten-acre gardens of the House, amongst the delicately lit trees reflected magically in the waters of the lake.  The audience sits in pavilions on the water’s edge, social distanced at café-théâtre tables, looking across to the stage poised on the edge of the island in the middle of the lake.  This is the wonderful Theatre on the Lake. 

The first act is in Magda’s fashionable salon in Paris.  The décor of the set could from Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase, the art nouveau wallpaper geometric golden and free standing gilded banana trees, the bold leaves swaying in the breeze.  All is lit in purple highlights.  It is fin de siècle.  However, contrarily the furniture is 1950s Robin Day style and, when the cast enter, the ladies dresses are 1950’s Dior-YSL style A-Line.  Director Richard Studer oversaw the design and the intention may be to anticipate the conflicting mores that drive the plot of La Rondine.  Conversely, it may reflect the bumpy gestation of Puccini’s creation.  Das Carltheater in Vienna had in October 1913 commissioned Puccini to compose an operetta.  He was not altogether comfortable with this genre and, although a comic opera form was agreed as a compromised, Puccini agonised over it for three years.   By 1916 hostilities between Austria and Italy made it impossible for the project, which was to become La Rondine to be completed.  Transmuting the work into the opera form appealed more, but as  the First World War raged it was performed on neutral ground at L’Opéra de Monte-Carlo in March 1917.  Studer’s design parenthesises both World Wars.  Wars and other catastrophes (like Covid) change moral attitudes.  Whatever the inspiration, plaudits go to the wardrobe team supervised by Jill Rolfe for the costumes and a special mention to Lynne Entwhistle’s millinery.

As her three friends, Yvette, Bianca and Suzy (sopranos Jana Holesworth, Laura Ruhi Vidal and mezzo Kamilla Dunstan) flutter into Magda’s soiree the insouciant gaiety of la belle époque is immediately evoked.  They rib Prunier playfully about his pronouncements on the power of romantic love, but he responds with his yet to be completed poem, about Doretta, chi il bel sogno di Doretta potè indovinar (who would ever guess Doretta’s beautiful dream) about a girl who turns down the wooing of the king, because l’oro non può dare la felicità (gold cannot give happiness).  Magda takes up the challenge to complete the story, opening with the same line, but in her version, un giorno uno student in bocca la baciò, e fu quel bacio – rivelazione (one day a student kissed her lips, and that kiss was a – revelation).  This exchange summarises the plot of La Rondine, but also provides a pair of set-piece arias right at the beginning of the opera.  William Morgan sympathetically portrays the quick-witted light-hearted Prunier, demonstrating his lively and balanced tenor voice (and was he accompanying himself on the piano?), while Russian soprano Galina Averina is an attractive Magda, true to the part of the courtesan looking for true love, insecure in herself in spite of her sophistication.  Averina has a lovely wide-ranging mellifluous voice, which is immediately exhibited again as Magda sings another central aria Ore dolci e divine (sweet and divine hours), as she recalls happy times as a young woman, working by day and dancing in the evenings.

However, Magda is a kept women and her keeper, the jaded Rambaldo wants to keep it that way.  After her clever completion of il sogno di Doretta, he rewards her with an expensive pearl necklace.  The experienced baritone Philip Smith who plays Rambaldo is an interesting personality.  In an earlier life he was a surveyor of otters: perhaps a good preparation for the part of Rambaldo, who needs to keep an eye on the lithe and fugitive Magda.  His Rambaldo is played as a grey figure, more world-weary than wordly-wise.

Always an audience favourite in La Rondine is Lisette, Magda’s maid, cheeky and deliciously insubordinate.  Magda tolerates, and perhaps slightly encourages Lisette, because she finds her amusing company.  Maybe Lisette also reminders Magda of her previous carefree life.  Spanish soprano Lorena Paz Nieto clearly enjoys the part of Lisette, making the most of the minx with (capital A) Attitude.  Nieto comes into her own in the scenes with Prunier and, as the plot develops, Prunier almost becomes the comic stooge for Lisette.

If Rambaldo represents the king in Doretta’s dream, the student must come along.  Whilst the guests at Magda’s are preoccupied with Prunier showing off his skill as a palmist, a young man Ruggero Laustouc enters looking for Ramabldo.   A country lad, Ruggero has an introduction to Paris from his father, an old school chum of Rambaldo.   Here, the plot needs much suspension of disbelief, as hostess and new guest, whilst not having much conversation in Magda’s salon, will fail to recognise each other a few hours later. 

Moreover, after some discussion on which sights of Paris Ruggero should visit, during which Prunier downplays the city to which Lisette gives a spirted resistance, the brisk banter full of energy from Nieto, “sono Parigina, nell’anima e difendo il regno della donna!” (“I am a Parisienne to my soul and defend this woman’s kingdom!”).   Ruggero gets a full Lonely Planet Guide to Paris from all, before they agree on Bullier’s nightclub.   To cover the notion that Magda is not part of this, the other guests engage in a stylised exchange around the grand piano, a slow-moving carousel as a dumb show.  This conceit does not quite work as it does not fit in the style of the rest of the presentation, but never mind, for Prunier now has Lisette to himself and flirts outrageously with her.  Lisette responses with enthusiasm and soon, in clothes purloined from Magda, she is on her way with Prunier to … Bullier’s.    Meanwhile, Magda, musing on how Prunier had described her during the palmistry, “come la rondine, … verso il sole, verso l’Amore…”  (“like the swallow… towards the sun, towards love…”) decides to dress as the working girl she once was and go off to … … Bullier’s.   

During the dinner interval, the stage is transformed into Bullier’s with round restaurant tables mirroring those of the audience across the lake.  We now have become part of Parisian café-society.  The set is lit in blue, a risqué colour, for Bullier’s is full of ladies of easy virtue and students on the pull.  Here Ruggero comes, an innocent abroad, happily accepting the milieu.  Magda arrives and, to escape the predations of the students, asks to join him at his table.  Of course the inevitable happens, and Prunier’s prophecy in Doretta’s dream begins to come true.  Magna writes her name on the tablecloth as Paulette as they exchange names. 

Meanwhile Prunier and Lisette have come into Bullier’s, and there is an element of farce with comings and goings and identities.   It is here in Act Two that the operetta gestation of La Rondine breaks the surface, not only with these farce-like interactions, but in the music.  Puccini introduces dance music, waltzes and a polka, which is danced by the ensemble.  The choreography of the polka is remarkable, bearing in mind the numbers, the size of the stage and its many tables and other stage props.  

When Ruggero proposes a drink a toast to love, “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” (“I drink to your fresh smile”) it begins a wonderful love duet with Magda, so typical of what Puccini does best.  Rambaldo turns up, demanding explanations, Magda faces him alone, strong to say that she is leaving him for Ruggero.  Then it is clear that Doretta’s dream has come true, as emphasised by the dying notes of a flute and clarinet.

Act Three takes us to the French Riviera, where Magda and Ruggero have been living for several months.  The set is now bathed in a warm orange light.  Lighting designer Sarah Bath holds the effect at a fairly subtle level, but each act has a colour code according to the mood of the action.  She has integrated with Neil Daykin’s gardens illuminations, the pastel mauves and greens of which manifest themselves as twilight falls, into one contiguous lighting design.  The mood now is warm romance and indeed we start with Ruggero declaring his love for Magda in his aria, “Non son più solo con l’amor tuo che si risveglia ogni giorno più ardente” (“I am no longer alone with your love, which awakes more passionate each day”).  Notwithstanding the fine set pieces in Act Two, this final act largely showcases Ruggero.  Welsh tenor, Robyn Lyn Evans is well up to it, as befits a one-time Eisteddfod multi-award winner.  Now well-established on the opera stage, Evans adds powerful singing to well-measured acting in the part. 

Although Ruggero’s imagination and planning for their happy married family life in the country, “Dimmi che vuoi seguirmi alla mia casa” (“Tell me that you want to follow me to my home”), all is not well.  Money has been squandered and Ruggero has been writing to the Bank of Mum.  He also tells Magda that he has asked his mother for her consent to their marriage.

Circumstances bode ill though.  The unexpected appearance for Prunier and Lisette gives some light relief to the act.  He has been trying, unsuccessfully, to “gentrify” Lisette, but the disillusioned Lisette wants her old job back.  On press night the figurative fireworks generated by the pair on-stage were augmented by some actual fireworks off-stage nearby.  As sparks fly though, Morgan and Nieto mine a rich seam of humour from their appearance.  However, they have been seeking Magda with a message of reconciliation from Rambaldo and events must now come to a head.

In the denouement, Puccini’s music is very expressive and conductor Johnathan Lyness takes the pace of his twenty-one piece orchestra, whom has been on-stage all along, to match the mood.  The oboe punctuates the stress as Magda explains that she cannot live the lie of her past life, as tubular bells chime the knell to Ruggero’s hopes.  Magda stays strong, “L’anima mia è con te, con te per sempre!” (“My soul is with you, with you forever!”), while Ruggero collapses, “Vita di mia vita, non spezzare il mio cuor!” (“Life of my life, do not break my heart!”).

For almost a century after its premiere, La Rodine has undeservedly had a bad press, and has only just been appreciated for its dramatic possibilities, ably expressed by director Richard Studer at West Green, and its fine music that is bought to life by conductor Johnathan Lyness.  Criticisms include its use of ideas well-worn in earlier operas, Verdi’s La Traviata, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (1894) to name but two, or Puccini’s own Manon Lescaut or La Bohème, and the unsatisfactory non-bloody and deathless, and therefore non-operatic, ending!  The first criticism is discussed in Richard Strauss’ 1924 opera Capriccio (by a poet) and as for the second, do we always need a clean-cut ending.

With a potentially ambiguous ending left hanging, we could wander in the illuminated gardens of West Green House, with its avenues and grottos and lakes full of gentle light, and discuss our own conclusions.  Which of the four personalities wins after the end of our story, Magda, Doretta, Paulette, or La Rondine?  With its lure of wonted luxury, does the money win; or is it a case of love conquers all?

In spite of those romantic demons, I say Amor Vincit Omnia.

Mark Aspen, July 2021

Photography by Richard Pendar, Luigi Petti and Elizabeth Wait

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