Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Review: The music and the singers remain the best things about "La Rondine" at Opera Theatre

Act II quartet and chorus
Photo: Ken Howard
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What: Puccini's La Rondine
Where: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
When: Through June 28, 2015

Puccini’s romantic drama "La Rondine" was something of a problem child for the composer. Opera Theatre's utterly splendid production of the original 1917 version (there are thee altogether) illustrates the issue: Giuseppe Adami's clunker of a libretto. As beautifully sung, impeccably acted, intelligently directed, and generally entertaining as this "La Rondine" is, there's just no getting around those words.

The opera's history was troubled from the beginning. The original request from Vienna's Carltheater in 1913 was for an operetta. Puccini asked for (and got) permission to instead write a genuine opera, but lighter in tone than his tragic masterpieces. When he offered the finished product to his publisher Tito Ricordi in 1916, Ricordi turned it down. Yet when it was published by Ricordi's rival Lorenzo Sonzogno, Ricordi (as stage director Michael Gieleta relates in his program notes) "spread bad word of mouth about 'La rondine'...with such zeal that even a century later, both experts and amateurs retains all sorts of 'opinions' on what 'La rondine' was and wasn't."

Sydney Mancasola and John McVeigh
Photo: Ken Howard
It was revised twice after its premiere (the final version was mounted by OTSL back in 1996), but no revision of it has ever achieved the popularity of "La Boheme" (which it somewhat resembles, at least in the second act) or Puccini's other operas. Until very recently it was still not uncommon to see it dismissed as "Puccini's operetta."

In both the first and third versions, the libretto of "La Rondine" is often so cryptic that it's nearly telegraphic. "We are given minimal background information concerning the characters," observed Mr. Gieleta in an interview with me during tech week, "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 is free to interpret the scarcely narrated facts in their own way." Unfortunately, it also makes some of the characters' decisions a bit baffling.

The story is basically “Traviata lite”. Magda, a “kept woman”, leaves her rich, middle-aged lover Rambaldo and her lush life in Paris to take up with Ruggero, a young hunk from the sticks. Unfortunately the young hunk is, as written, far too painfully naive to be sympathetic, and the rich lover little more than a cipher, which makes Magda's decision to leave them both seem more immature and petulant than tragic.

Corinne Winters
Photo: Ken Howard
That said, this is such an impressive production in every way that I mostly found myself able to suspend disbelief and revel in the many wonderful individual moments. The ecstatic "toast to love" in the second act, with the full chorus in full voice, is but one of many examples. One does not, in the final analysis, go to a Puccini opera for the intelligence of the libretto but for the emotional power of the music. And "La Rondine" has that in abundance.

This production also has bravura performances in abundance, led by soprano Corinne Winters as Magda. She has, in her lower register, the kind of richness I associate with mezzos or altos, while still retaining a crystal clear head voice. Her first big aria in Act I ("Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" in the original Italian) was a real show stopper, drawing enthusiastic applause from the opening night audience. Better yet, her acting is completely convincing, even in the drawn-out melodramatic renunciation of Ruggero in the third act.

As Magda's maid Lisette, whose expectations of music-hall stardom prove to be wildly unrealistic, soprano Sydney Mancasola also displays a wonderfully clear voice with great top notes, along with a sure comic sense. Tenor John McVeigh turns in an equally fine performance as the poet Prunier, Lisette's on again/off again lover, with yet another fine, strong voice and a convincingly sympathetic character.

Corinne Winters and Anthony Kalil
Photo: Ken Howard
In the role of Ruggero, tenor Anthony Kalil did not sound as vocally powerful to me as the rest of the principals, but otherwise turned in a respectable if somewhat monochromatic performance. There is, I think, a bit more variety to Ruggero's character than I saw, at least on opening night. Still, he certainly holds his own with Ms. Winters, Ms. Mancasola, and Mr. McVeigh in that rapturous quartet-and-chorus number in the second act.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns isn't given much to do as Rambaldo, but even so he manages to suggest that there is more to his character than the libretto indicates, and does so with a robust and well-focused voice. Sopranos Ashley Milanese and Elizabeth Sutphen and mezzo Hannah Hagerty all provide well-sung cameos as Magda's friends Yvette, Bianca, and Suzy.

Mr. Gieleta direction is unfailingly sure-footed, creating powerful stage pictures, clarifying character, and generally serving the material remarkably well. Alexander Dodge's and Gregory Gale's costumes beautifully conjure up both Belle Époque Paris and the seaside resort to which Magda and Ruggero flee in the third act, assisted by Christopher Akerlind's dramatic lighting design. This is a "La Rondine" that looks as good as it sounds.

John McVeigh, Corinne Winters and ensemble
Photo: Ken Howard
Speaking of how it sounds, OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord conducts the orchestra with the assurance we have come to expect of him over the years, while the ensemble of (mostly) St. Louis Symphony musicians responds with powerful, impeccable playing. Puccini's entrancing score comes through in all its glory.

"La Rondine" may never get as much respect as Puccini's more famous works, but it deserves to be seen, if only because it's one of the few Puccini operas in which the heroine isn't either a hapless victim or clueless enabler of badly-behaved men. Say what you will about Magda, she ultimately chooses her own road, even if her reasons are not always clear. And when her story is told this well—to say nothing of this beautifully sung—it’s a reminder of why we love opera in the first place.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of "La Rondine" continues through June 28 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. More information is available at the opera theatre web site.

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