PUCCINI La Rondine
La rondine is often dismissed (not least by me) as one of Puccini’s weaker operas, a sort of poor hybrid between La traviata and La bohème. Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, refused the score, dismissing it as ‘bad Lehár’. The hit number ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ comes desperately early on in the piece, after which we always seem to be on the verge of another great tune that never quite arrives. Composed to challenge (and cash in on) Lehár’s domination of the operetta scene, it charts the vacillations of the Parisian courtesan Magda de Civry between her elderly protector Rambaldo and her young beau Ruggero Lastouc. The poet Prunier tells her she is like a swallow (‘una rondine’) and eventually – to spare besmirching Ruggero’s family with the shame of her past – she abandons her young lover to return to Rambaldo.
Tenor Rolando Villazón turns his hand to opera direction in this production, new to the Deutsche Oper Berlin last year. I feared his ebullient personality and hyperactive stage presence would transfer to his directing skills, crushing the wings of this delicate Swallow in the process. Not a bit of it. Villazón shows admirable restraint in a straightforward, stylish production that contains a good deal of charm. He updates the action from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, which means that Chez Bullier becomes a chic nightclub with flapper girls and feathers. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s stylish costumes look good, and Johannes Leiacker’s set for Act 3 wittily suggests the French Riviera via a rowing boat and white sands amid the palm court pot plants. Villazón adds surrealist touches via a trio of faceless men – mannequins invisible to everyone else – who escort Magda, almost haunting her. This leads to a neat touch at the end when Magda deserts Ruggero.
The Azerbaijani soprano Dinara Alieva, a Bolshoi soloist since 2010, is better known for her Russian – rather than Italian – repertoire, but sings most prettily as Magda. There’s a rich darkness to her voice, especially in Doretta’s Dream, but there is also an attractive lighter quality later on which is very appealing. Her acting isn’t a strength, regularly outshone by Alexandra Hutton’s sparky performance as her feisty maid Lisette.
Charles Castronovo’s Ruggero moons around with puppy-dog eyes and matinee-idol good looks – a perfect role for his lyric tenor. Alvaro Zambrano provides a good contrast, a vibrant Prunier, if lacking a true legato. He and Hutton work well as the comic pair who reunite before the leading couple part as the opera closes. Roberto Rizzi Brignoli occasionally indulges Puccini’s score with a little too much rubato but draws rich playing from the Berlin strings. An understated, stylish production, which could win round some of Rondine’s critics.