Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Opera Preview: Stage director Michael Gieleta on Opera Theatre's "La Rondine"

Michael Gieleta
This Saturday, May 30th, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Puccini's rarely seen "lyrical comedy" "La Rondine" ("The Swallow") in the original 1917 version. The opera has only been seen once before on the OTSL stage—in 1996, when the company presented the American premiere of the third (1921) version. I interviewed stage director Michael Gieleta via email during the final week of rehearsals.

Chuck Lavazzi: Puccini famously left "La Rondine" in a bit of a mess when he died, with three different performing versions available. OTSL has decided on the original 1917 version, which seems to be a popular choice. What were the factors the led you and your collaborators to pick this one as opposed to the other two?

Michael Gieleta: I don't think Puccini's lateral takes on "La Rondine" are any different from his takes on "Madama Butterfly," or of many now-famous American musicals which, for different reasons, get written and rewritten before, during and after they reach Broadway/the West End. It's not untypical of the composers' creative process and of its response to the various kind of pressure from the publishers, producers and the initial press feedback. Lastly, there are the stars who demand an extra "number" (be it "Send in the Clowns" or "Una furtiva lagrima") before the final curtain. Does anyone ever perform the Berlin version of Ibsen's "Doll's House" at the end of which Nora decides to stay with the husband and the children in order to keep the family hearth alit?

OTSL considered the original, Monte Carlo-premiered version of "La Rondine" most immediate and straightforward and that was the version it was decided to go along with. It may mean that our male lead misses out on his "Parigi è una città dei desideri" Act One aria introduced in the later versions, but he more than makes up for it later in the opera!

"La Rondine" doesn't seem to get as much attention as Puccini's more famous operas. Why do you think that might be?

It's an interesting question that could be asked in reverse: why is it that "Tosca," "Butterfly," and "Bohème" have been more present in the repertoire than "Manon Lescaut," "The Girl of the Golden West," "Il Tabarro," "La Rondine" or even "Turandot"?

What makes "La Rondine"'s rare appearance in the rep even more particular is the fact that, unlike some of the titles above, "La Rondine" has a genuine "hit", "Qu'il bel sogno di Doretta". Furthermore, it is one of Puccini's most loved, performed and enduring arias. The biographical background of the premiere of the piece is an unusual one too; I've written about it at length in the programme note.

What is important is that some titles, some composers and some authors simply come in and out of fashion. It's up to each generation to find their sung or unsung heroes according to that generation's sensitivities towards beauty, drama and music. If you stand outside the famous Paris Opera House, you may as well ask what the busts of Spontini, Halévy, Meyerbeer and Auber are doing next to those of Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini.

As you write in your program note, "La Rondine" was often referred to (inaccurately and dismissively) as Puccini's "operetta," but that this is finally changing. Do you think the attitudes of the protagonist Magda might play a part in that? She seems a bit less inclined to play the victim than Puccini's more well-known heroines, which would make her more plausible to a contemporary audience.

As "La Rondine" is being reappreciated in the modern day, the contemporary audiences get a chance to directly experience this paradox: whatever monikers were applied to the opera in the past, they are not necessarily substantiated by the work itself.

Magda is no victim at all; she takes responsibility for her choices and she sticks to those choices. We are given minimal background information concerning the characters as if the piece was prompting the audience to figure the actual storyline out for themselves from the scraps of textual evidence. In that context, "La Rondine" is reminiscent of a good theatrical play in which the author renounces traditional omniscience and where the public free to interpret the scarcely narrated facts in their own way. To quote Puccini's contemporary playwright Luigi Pirandello: "it is so, (if you think so)". That's the spirit, I believe, in which Puccini and Adami were writing "La Rondine."

So it is, in some ways, a very modern work.

Last question: the last opera you directed here in St. Louis was Smetana's "The Kiss" back in 2013. At the time, I couldn't help noticing that the heroine, Vendulka, was a refreshingly independent-minded woman with attitudes toward the opposite sex and marriage that sounded very modern, given that the opera premiered in 1876. As a director, are you drawn to libretti that (unlike so much of 19th century opera) feature strong-willed heroines? Or am I just reading too much into this?

I'm very flattered, Chuck, that you have noticed the parallel. I see myself as a storyteller and an interpreter of the material left over by the composer and the librettist. It's Smetana and Puccini (and countless others) who put strong-willed women at the centre of their works. "La Rondine" is quite unusual in Puccini's cannon as it does not have a pre-existing literary source. But that gives both the artists and the audience a wider scope for unbiased interpretation. There's much less play-like realism in "La Rondine" (as opposed to such intricately crafted theatrical set-ups as those found in "Tosca" or "Butterfly," based respectively on plays by Sardou and Belasco); such absence of narrative certainties makes my job all the more demanding, it enriches the rehearsal process and prompts us all in the rehearsal room to stretch our imagination beyond the factual succinctness of the stage directions in the score.

Ticket information for "La Rondine," the season's other operas, and information on the entire OTSL experience (including picnic suppers on the lawn before the shows) is available at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

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