Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London: 12, 15, 18, 20, 23, 26 November 2004
In some respects, La Rondine is Puccini's most-heartbreaking opera.
Although all the characters escape alive at the end, the farewell between the central lovers, Magda and Ruggero, is a far more poignant operatic moment than the deaths of Mimi, Madama Butterfly or Tosca.
This is the Der Rosenkavalier of Italian opera, running the gamut of emotions from jealousy to love.
Despite its indebtedness to Viennese operetta, La Rondine remains a thoroughly Italian work, both in terms of Puccini's typical soaring romantic melodies and the warm local colour of the drama.
It's also a very forward-looking work, largely through-composed, with the one big aria forming part of the action as Magda sings a song to the assembled company ("Doretta's dream").
The story is heart-rending, describing how Magda, the mistress of the elderly Rambaldo, falls in love with the latter's friend Ruggero. Magda knows that she will bring social disgrace on Ruggero if she continues the liaison, however, so she returns to Rambaldo, leaving Ruggero distraught.
A second pair of lovers is provided by the bickering Lisette (Magda's maid) and Prunier (a young poet), showing a similar structure of characters to Lehar's The Merry Widow. The highlight of the score, however, is a large scene for the two pairs of lovers and the chorus at the end of Act Two, which is pure Verdi in terms of its complex form, simultaneously encompassing the emotions of several different characters.
The opera only entered the repertoire of the Royal Opera in 2002, in a middling production directed by Nicolas JoŽl, with strangely two-dimensional sets by Ezio Frigerio. These have returned to haunt us, but are at least of the correct Art Nouveau period.
Angela Gheorghiu, the Madga of 2002, has also returned to put in a far more committed performance than she did then. Her rendition of Doretta's aria was not always secure in terms of pitch, but she gave the role just the element of pathos it needs to be convincing. She was particularly impressive in the finales to Acts 2 and 3, filling the house with a gloriously luxuriant tone.
Sadly, her husband and Ruggero of 2002, Roberto Alagna, did not join her for this revival. Instead, Jonas Kaufmann made his house debut in the role, and while rising to most of the vocal challenges, he simply was no replacement for Alagna. Nor was he particularly convincing as the romantic hero, so stiff was his acting. Nevertheless, there were moments of exquisite beauty and he certainly has the lyricism for the role.
Annamaria Dell'Ost made her house debut as Lisette, more suited to the role's comic wit than vocal lightness, and Kurt Streit was excellent as Prunier.
The joy of the evening was to have Robert Lloyd back at the house as Rambaldo. He still fills the space with his voice better than most singers three decades his junior, and can act them off the stage with the merest gesture too. He is the ideal singer-actor and well worth the price of admission.
Emmanuel Villaume led a vital, if sometimes cold reading of the score, bringing out plenty of detail and accompanying sympathetically. The orchestra was in fine form, though the chorus lacked the precision they always held in the days of Terry Edwards.
In all, a star-vehicle of a show, but with much else to enjoy nevertheless.