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Love and Loss - La Rondine at the Metropolitan Opera

The Mere Breeze of Flirtation, Love, and Loss: La Rondine at the Metropolitan Opera

April 20, 2024

La Rondine (The Swallow)

Music, Giacomo Puccini

Libretto, Giuseppe Adami

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Conductor, Speranza Scappucci

Magda de Civry, Angel Blue

Lisette, Emily Pogorelc

Ruggero Lastouc, Jonathan Tetelman

Prunier, Bekhzod Davronov

Rambaldo Fernandez, Alfred Walker

Act II Quartet
(Left to Right) Emily Pogorelc, Bekhzod Davronov, Jonathan Tetelman, Angel Blue in Act II quartet

Opera loves its courtesans. We think immediately of Violetta, the consumptive man-magnet in La Traviata. Fidelity is sorely lacking in these plots, but tragedy frequently follows love that is true. Salons attract ardent men, blind to their inamorata’s public habits, become timebombs for a broken heart. Of course, Violetta was really distancing herself from Alfredo for the sake of his father’s loathing of the amoral liaison. In Massenet’s Thaïs, the composer redeems his courtesan, by abjuring the monk who is sexually obsessed with her and to whom the heroine retreats. After Thaïs’s ultimate repentance and death, the real character on which she is based was canonized by the Catholic Church. However, Puccini’s lush La Rondine offers less pathos for courtesans with broken hearts.

Contemporaneous with Puccini’s La Rondine (1917), Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) grappled unconventionally and comedically with lovers’ broken vows. Without the expected tragic consequences of consumption and death, Ariadne depicts two nested plots: one paints the breaches of fidelity between two lovers, drawn from Greek mythology, in a grandly operatic style; the second is a comic cynical subplot mocking all virtuousness vaunted by a concupiscent cabaret singer with an abetting troop of stage clowns. Puccini must have known Strauss' work, since Prunier, the poet in La Rondine, threatens to delve into the histrionics of heroines like Salome for his future inspiration. As well, Puccini’s arias, accompanied by an on-stage piano blended in the plot (as stage innovations in both Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Ariadne), show an awareness of the leaner more esthetic ambiance of stage works prior to WWI.

Puccini wrote some of his most affecting music in this little opera, which dresses casually; it sports a lighter “verismo,” not sharing the sometimes-tragic realities set in cigarette factories, peasant life, and circuses. The characters are Parisians who demonstrate the diversity of cafe denizens: the wealthy, those engaged by the wealthy, and both established artists and those who yearn for recognition. The airy, transparent texture of the score and instrumentation is aligned with the tuneful vocal numbers and the somewhat pastel-colored plot.

We first see our “swallow,” Magda, rich Rambaldo’s mistress, amongst some fashionable friends, including the poet Prunier. His newly composed song about a girl named Doretta’s dream of rejecting a king’s wealth for true love anticipates the ironic subtext that follows. Magda completes Prunier’s song-in-progress, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” the dreamy aria best-known from this work. Rambaldo, like the king in Doretta’s dream, is fated for rejection (which will ultimately be reversed). Magda is seeking true love and a metamorphosis from being a parasitic kept prize. Her dream is to relive a past passion, thus reifying Doretta’s “dream.” The handsome newcomer, Ruggero Lastouc, whose father grew up with Rambaldo, has arrived with a letter of introduction to Rambaldo. The father wants Rambaldo to guide Ruggero through the nightlife of Paris. Listette, Magda’s maid, is a bit of a comic foil who becomes Prunier’s object of desire.

La Rondine clearly absorbed the contemporary cultural fascination with psychoanalysis, eros, Freudian dream interpretation, Nietzschean “eternal return”, and the current fad of palmistry. As well, authors, artists, and composers were obsessed with the fragile boundary between self-realization and self-indulgence. As the plot ensues, Puccini uses the well-worn trope of costume change deceptions to create dynamics of tension and irony. Except (at first) for Rambaldo, all parties wind up going to Bullier’s dancehall, where Ruggero is hanging out. Magda changes her outfit to that of a charwoman, or grisette; Lisette dons Magda’s raiment, and starts her affair with Prunier. Ultimately, Magda and Ruggero become enamored, but not before some beautiful atmospheric assistance in the duet, “Nella dolce carezza della danza.” When the four lovers meet, the quartet (“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”) is scintillating as it gathers lushness and momentum in a crescendo of repetition and choral voices. Rambaldo, who happens into Bullier’s, sees Magda and Ruggero, flaunts a confrontation, but is dispelled by Magda who rejects her liaison with Rambaldo.

The rest of the story follows like a Möbius strip of the moral threads of Traviata, minus consumption. Ruggero wants legitimacy, parental blessings, and a family. Magda cannot see herself except as a courtesan who is tainted; ultimately she abandons the weeping Ruggero. Courtesans may perish from the blights they assume for their men, but redemption by heartbreak and abandonment seems to be the equally effective denouement for this opera.

Puccini never strode along the path of manifest decadence that Strauss did with the sexual shockers Salome or Elektra, where Freudian infusions abound and ultimately expose deadly venial obsessions. The two composers would have a common libretto thread in the future. The playwright Carlos Gozzi’s Turandot became Puccini’s unfinished work in the 1920s; von Hofmannsthal incorporated Friedrich Schiller’s adaptation of Turandot for Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919). Neither, by the way, relates the fates of courtesans, a subject overplayed by that time.

Today’s production was unencumbered with any boggy staging, allowing the cast to breathe the ambience of the faintly perfumed erotic scent of Parisian love. Angel Blue, as Magda, has a stunningly lyric and transparent voice. Her expressivity and physical immersion in the moment was something not easily forgotten. Her opening “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” was as memorable as great interpretations of the past. My first listening was on an old Leontyne Price album. Ms. Blue’s delivery was no less enchanting, lending a power and unique timbre to this aria. Tenor Jonathan Tetelman (Ruggero)’s introductory “Parigi! É la città dei desideria” was no less convincing, with a bright heroic cadence to “La Vida.” Bekhzod Davronov, as the poet Prunier, demonstrated a light, parlando tenor delivery, and Emily Pogorelc was a fresh delight as the comic Lisette. Alfred Walker, the excellent bass-baritone who stared at Bard this past year as Henri VIII had the all-too-brief role as the rejected Rambaldo.

From beginning to end, La Rondine more than amply boasts Puccini’s gift as a melodist. Strauss had said, “I cannot listen to his operas, because if I do, I can’t get the melodies out of my head!” It is doubtful, in spite of Puccini’s admiration for Strauss that the Italian master suffered any “earworms” from Salome or Elektra. However, I'm sure he found haunting melodies in Der Rosenkavalier!


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