In La rondine's climactic scene, when Magda explains to her young lover Ruggero why she believes she must leave him, Puccini sets their exchange to one of the most hackneyed of all musical formulas: the cycle of fifths. Another Puccini opera, another doomed romance; the composer imbues this climax with a sense of inevitability – just as we know what chord to expect next in the sequence, we know that these lovers, like almost all Puccini's other couples, must somehow part. The effect is moving, as we hear the wheels of fate inexorably turn, but it's also so familiar as to seem a little businesslike, rather quotidian.
The same might be said of La rondine as a whole, especially in this revived Royal Opera House production. There's no denying the brilliance or beauty of the music, or the power of the conclusion, but what makes it stand out in Puccini's oeuvre is how unremarkable it is. There is no impending French invasion, no orientalism, no murder – no death at all, for that matter. La rondine's plot, in fact, is essentially a sanitised rehash of various tropes well familiar to a seasoned opera-goer: the central couple, a glamorous courtesan and a less experienced man, is plainly lifted from Verdi's La traviata, and Act II is set in a glamorous Parisian bar, directly recalling Act II of Puccini's own La bohème. Even the opera's title (which translates to "The Swallow" – Magda, like a swallow, flies away) places it squarely in the shadow of these two earlier Italian classics.
That the heroine doesn't have consumption and die can be put down to the work's origins as a commission from Vienna's Carltheater: it was originally to be a Viennese operetta, hence light-hearted and not obsessed with death. Puccini soon found himself unable to fully complete this brief, and the project morphed into an Italian-language piece without the spoken dialogue typical of operettas – in other words, into an opera much in line with the rest of his output. But something of the spirit of operetta remains, in the pervasive dance rhythms and the clarity of the composition, with its discrete, structured arias and neat melodic lines – and, most of all, in the frothy, inconsequential plot, lacking the extremes of drama more customary for this composer. Puccini perhaps tries to elevate his story through his typically deft score: the numerous popular dances are so well integrated into the opera's dramatic fabric that it becomes a delicate, svelte tribute to the operetta and the dancehall; an opera about operetta, perhaps. When compared to his more familiar operatic triumphs, however, La rondine still lacks that final bite of distinction.
That's not to say the work is a failure – the mature Puccini was too good for such things; and similarly, standards at the Royal Opera this season have been too high for a poorly realised production to ever seem like a possibility. Nicolas Joël's well-travelled 1920s-style production is hardly news, having been doing the rounds in London, at the Met and elsewhere for over a decade – it's revived here by Stephen Barlow – but its grace and beauty remain considerable. The art deco-style stained glass of the third act (set designed by Ezio Frigero) drew audible gasps from the audience on Friday night, and all proceeds with a wistful, summery elegance perfectly attuned to the opera itself.
Angela Gheorghiu has been singing Magda for longer than the ROH has been staging this production, and her quality in the role was high though not spectacular, with rich top notes and the right blend of worldliness tinged with vulnerability. Her Ruggero, tenor Charles Castronovo, was technically assured, although his rather full, almost baritonal sound felt overly mature for a character meant to be the picture of innocence. By contrast, the lighter tenor tone of Edgaras Montvidas as Prunier, the poet who falls for Magda's maid Lisette, was an excellent fit, and the chirpy Sabina Puértolas was similarly well cast as his lover. Marco Armiliato conducted sensitively, though the ROH Orchestra have had stronger nights and the occasional delicate moment was slightly fluffed. This first night did feel like a first night at times, but it's safe to assume things will tighten up. (Gheorghiu and Castronovo make way in three later performances for Ermonela Jaho and Atalla Ayan.)
After a week of rather exceptional allegations flying back and forth in the British press, it was something of a relief to witness a performance from Angela Gheorghiu which was basically unexceptional in its high quality. Everything about this production, in fact, stayed firmly away from controversy and shock, as reassuringly conventional overall as the opera's plot itself. But with the general standard as high as Puccini and the ROH regularly achieve, this Rondine is well worth seeing and hearing for the way it imbues the familiar themes it cycles through with breezy virtuosity.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD