La Rondine: good singers, shame about the opera

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am definitely not a Puccini fan, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I haven’t seen his infrequently performed opera La Rondine. That is, not from start to finish. I’m an opera fan in the era of the internet, so clips come my way pretty often. And because my young, American, opera fan friends have interesting taste, those clips usually come from Marta Domingo’s production, famous for using the opera’s alternate ending and for including lots of usually omitted material from Puccini’s own revisions.

What I saw at the Deutsche Oper tonight—the short “standard version”—is hardly the same opera. It’s frothy and insipid, less substantial than any Strauss operetta and without the catchy tunes to compensate. Puccini’s usual over-the-top music serves a plot that can’t support it and characters without depth or development.

© 2015, Bettina Stöß

Rolando Villazon’s production doesn’t help. (Yes, you read that name correctly. The star tenor is ramping up his directing career.) The opera’s glitzy 1850s setting has been updated to the even glitzier 1920s. (This is presumably solely for the purpose of putting Alexandra Hutton (Lisette) in devastatingly handsome tails—in which case I entirely approve.) A giant nude serves as a backdrop and Prunier plays women as instruments, just in case the message of decadence isn’t clear enough. It seems it all couldn’t possibly get kitschier, but it does! For the final act, Magda and Ruggero retreat to a picture-perfect beach with a little overturned boat. A strange cut-out floats in an overly blue sky behind them. (I spent a while staring at it, convinced that it was the silhouette of a deformed man, but my companions assured me that it was simply an unfortunate rendering of the nude from the first act.)

© 2015, Bettina Stöß

The paradox of this staging is that the symbolism of the non-realistic elements seems both condescending and hard to pin down. The blue-sky version of the nude represents the shadow of Magda’s past, get it? Oh, no, wait—it’s Ruggero’s idealization of her and willful blindness! The men who follow Magda around in white masks are the ghosts of Magda’s past who literally hold up mirrors to her. Or maybe they’re personifications of her fate, which is why they help her fall in love with Ruggero. In act three, it seems like they might be Ruggero himself—they wear his clothing and writhe in response to statements that hurt him. Then, when he puts on a mask and joins them, they seem like Magda’s former lovers who have met his same fate. (This, of course, would not fit the text well.) My fellow opera-goer who described them as symbols of the oppressive bourgeois mentality deserves kudos for the most workable analysis, but if that is really what Villazon is going for, it’s pretty eye-roll-inducing.

© 2015, Bettina Stöß

So the opera was a miss and the staging didn’t redeem it, but I didn’t regret attending because of the cast. Alvaro Zambrano (Prunier) was announced as sick, and it showed, so I won’t comment on his voice. His acting was delightfully energetic, and I hope future audiences can see and hear him in full form. Still, I can’t imagine he could outshine Alexandra Hutton in the role of his sweetheart (and Magda’s maid) Lisette. She was a whirlwind on the stage, dashing from place to place, throwing off clear soprano lines with expressive inflection, and showing more character in an eyebrow than most opera singers in a whole body. (And did I mention that she looked amazing in her tails? Someone give costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel a medal for that.) Of course, it’s Ruggero and Magda who drive the opera. Charles Castronovo acquitted himself well with solid tone and interesting vocal choices, though his voice sounded a bit light for this opera with this theater and orchestra. But Dinara Alieva was clearly our star. Her voice doesn’t have a wide range of textures, and her forte is the beautiful rather than the dramatic. But her sound is wonderfully resonant with a ringing depth, and she can float pianissimo high notes with the best of them. She made good use of her talents tonight.

Roberto Rizzi Brignoli led the orchestra in a nauseatingly saccharine rendition of the score. (I’m not quite being fair here. The over-lushness was appropriate to the material, but I already said I didn’t like that!) I sometimes would have appreciated a snappier pace, but that’s mostly Puccini’s fault—this version of the score has many orchestral interludes that slow the action down at inopportune moments. More importantly, I needed less volume from the orchestra. I don’t know how the sound balanced in other parts of the theater, but from my second-balcony seat, voices often got lost. That’s always unfortunate in opera, but doubly so when the voices are all a show has to recommend it.

[all photos in this review © 2015, Bettina Stöß]