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November 30, 2004

La Rondine at Covent Garden

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Puccini's La Rondine
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, directed by Nicolas Jol
November 2004

La Rondine (to be pronounced in the Italian manner, stress on the final "e") is Puccini's neglected opera, and he is said to have been depressed by its lack of success to the end of his days. It was commissioned in 1912 in Vienna, and written during the First World War, in which some people thought he had enemy sympathies. This was perhaps why it had to be premiered in Monte Carlo. The Viennese provenance of its plot and style suggest a foray at best into the manner of Richard Strauss, at worst into operetta, but it is described as a lyric comedy. A tiresomely prominent maid suggests Die Fledermaus, but the basic plot resembles La Traviata. The Swallow (la rondine) as your ornithological friends might tell you, is a bird that flies off to the summer sunshine, but returns home to nest.

In these terms we find Magda as a charming courtesan at the centre of a Second Empire salon with the standard equipment of a rich established lover and a resident poet for amusement. The poet announces to universal derision that love is sweeping Paris, and sings a song about a heroine whose fate he has yet to decide. Magda in marvellously Puccinian soaring tones suggests an ending. We learn that Magda once had a romantic and unforgettable moment of love with a student she never saw again, and in the next act, a replay of the Caf Momus without Musetta, we see her again falling in love with the young man from the country who had been introduced (perhaps recalling Arabella) in the first act. As with Alfredo in La Traviata, he is a young man of impeccable family who would be ruined by marriage to a fallen woman. In the last act, she renounces love for his sake, and returns to her established lover. There is a kind of abstract debate in the background love against security but no grand theme, in either sense.

No cowboys, in other words, and no Orientals, nothing to stimulate Puccini's love of creative adventure in musical idiom. It's almost as though he took on the task (and worked on it for two years) just to show that he could do it. But the music is pure delight in his old familiar manner, and there are several large and charming arias, though none of the spectacular fireworks of the well-known canon. But if you have a soprano like Angela Gheorghiu to sing Magda, you don't need much else. She was superb, as were the sets. La Rondine is thus not Puccini in full throttle, but if he delights you, so will it.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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