PUCCINI La Rondine – Pappano
It could not be more welcome when a recording transforms a work, as this one does, setting it on a new plane. La Rondine (“The Swallow”), Puccini’s ill-timed attempt to emulate Lehar in the world of operetta, completed during the First World War, has long been counted his most serious failure, “a bird with half-broken wings” as Mosco Carner called it. The RCA recording conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli with Anna Moffo characterizing splendidly in the Violetta-like role of Magda, amply demonstrated the charms of the piece, followed by Lorin Maazel’s higher-powered if less idiomatic reading for Sony, with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo giving generalized portraits of the courtesan and the student she falls in love with.
Puccini’s cunning has never been in doubt either, for he and his librettists cleverly interweave elements not just of La traviata but of The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, not to mention earlier Puccini operas. His melodic style may for the most part be simpler than before, but one striking theme follows another with a profusion that any other composer might envy. What Pappano reveals far more than before is the subtlety with which Puccini interweaves his themes and motifs, with conversational passages made spontaneous-sounding in their flexibility. Above all, Pappano consistently brings out the poetry, drawing on emotions far deeper than are suggested by this operetta-like subject, thanks also to Gheorghiu’s superb performance, translating her mastery as Violetta to this comparable character. Magda’s first big solo, “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” (neatly forecast by the poet, Prunier, in the preceding section) finds Gheorghiu at her most ravishing, tenderly expressive in her soaring phrases, opening out only at the final climax.
Then through the following acts she makes you share the courtesan’s wild dream of finding her young student, her suppressed excitement as she goes off in disguise to the student haunt of Bullier’s, the dream-like meeting with Ruggero, her impulsive rejection of her protector, Rambaldo, the close of Act 2 so similar to the duetting of Rodolfo and Mimi. Most striking of all is the way she convinces you of her heartbreak, when in Act 3 she finally gives up Ruggero, not through any opposition from his family, but out of love for him, knowing the liaison would ruin him. From first to last, tenderly, often with a throb in the voice, her vocal acting convinces you that Magda’s are genuine, deep emotions, painful at the end, intensified by the ravishing beauty of her voice.
As Ruggero, the hero, Alagna has a far less complex role, winningly characterizing the ardent young student, singing in his freshest voice. What will specially delight Puccinians in this set is that he is given an entrance aria about Paris, “Parigi e un citta” (first disc, track 3), which transforms his otherwise minimal contribution to Act 1. Adapting it from a song, Puccini included it in the 1920 Viennese version of the score, but never incorporated it in the original Italian version, as it certainly deserves.
The partnership of Gheorghiu and Alagna highlights the way that Puccini in the melodic lines for each of his central characters makes Ruggero’s more forthright, Magda’s more complex. So in the Act 2 duet when the disguised Magda wonders why he should ever discover her secret (“Perche mai cercato”, first disc, track 23) the style is suddenly more sophisticated with its upward glissandos, a point superbly reinforced by Pappano, drawing glowing sounds from the LSO. Other ravishing moments I specially note involve pianissimo strings, as when Magda’s Rondine theme is recalled towards the end of Act 1, “Forse come un rondine” (first disc, track 14, 0'20'') and the reference back to the Doretta theme at the very end of the act (first disc, track 16, 0'40''). Neither previous set offers nearly as much subtlety.
Among much else, the role of the poet, Prunier, is transformed thanks to the casting of the clear-toned William Matteuzzi in what is normally a comprimario role. Not only is his relationship with Magda beautifully drawn, his improbable affair with the skittish maid, Lisette (clone of Adele in Fledermaus), is made totally convincing too, mirroring Magda’s affair. Then in the Act 3 duet with Lisette his head voice for the final top D flat is a delight (second disc, track 7, 3'38''). Inva Mula-Tchako is equally well-cast in the soubrette role of Lisette, bright and clear and vivacious, with Alberto Rinaldi making the sugar-daddy, Rambaldo, the dull dog Puccini intended. At least the arrival of Rambaldo at Bullier’s is made more dramatic than usual. As well as bringing out the subtleties, Pappano is equally convincing in the vigorous, flamboyant music, and the big drinking ensemble which crowns the Act 2 party scene with its glorious tune has all the thrust you could want, even more than in the pervious sets. The recording is warm and atmospheric, with ample clarity, fuller if not as immediate on instrumental sound as the RCA set.
The fill-ups are welcome too, particularly as neither of the rival sets has any. The excerpts from Le Villi, warm and the dramatic, make one wish that Pappano could go on to record that first of Puccini’s operas, with Alagna giving a ringing account of Roberto’s aria, as he does of the song,