In some ways, it is not hard to see why La rondine is not more frequently staged. The Brief Encounter-esque plot, in which Magda, the mistress of the banker Rambaldo, momentarily surrenders to insouciant abandon before forsaking her true love, Ruggero Lastouc, and returning to the fold, demands mood swings that stretch credulity, and rakes over certain emotions almost to breaking point. Around half of Act III witnesses Magda explaining why her shameful, though always opaque, past, means that she can never be Ruggeros.
However, Tom Hawkes’s captivating production for Opera Holland Park, with a superb cast, strong ensemble work, and excellent conducting from Peter Selwyn, draws us in to a degree that would hardly seem possible. Some of the reasons why may remain mysterious, although no-one could fail to put Kate Ladner’s performance as Magda at the top of the list. From her first aria, Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, her voice is characterised by soaring purity, as she applies vibrato intelligently and sparingly to bring out subtle textures in the music. She is elegant of bearing and seductive in tone, a yellow scarf wrapping around a velvety red dress in Act I, and Act III decking her out in Virgin white. When she changes her appearance to go out she becomes a wild, sensuous pre-Raphaelite lady that could have come straight from the hand of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Hal Cazalet’s Prunier is equally involving, and Sean Ruane’s Ruggero generates exquisite chemistry with Magda as he makes his own voyage of discovery, rising from dutiful dullness to cloud nine before tragically falling with similar speed. Hye-Youn Lee is a delightful and intelligent Lisette, bringing to life this maids own searching for bright lights and distraction before realising what is really important to her. Even Nicholas Todorovic’s Rambaldo arouses some sympathy as he shows himself to be a man whose understanding of others needs is simply limited, rather than one who is intrinsically unfeeling and dictatorial.
Just as important to the evening are Peter Rice’s delightful Art Nouveau sets, and the direction. The tableaux formed by the ensembles on stage as they respond to events are carefully choreographed but feel highly naturalistic. Act II introduces us to Bulliers, the most sought after venue in Paris, which, full of the joys of spring, acts as April’s answer to December’s Caf Momus. With its cross-section of Parisian society, its lively dancing and boisterous chorus, superbly led by soloists Stephanie Bodsworth, Sarah Minns and Olivia Ray, it would make the average Momus scene feel like a wake.
In the wrong pair of hands one senses that Act II could fall totally flat, but here we are swept along towards an almost hypnotic zenith, before the mood changes entirely as Anna Patalong’s beautiful Voice of the Dawn heralds in a new and cooler day. Of course, much of the success here can be attributed to Puccini’s music, which would always prevail to an extent, regardless of the production. On this occasion, however, I emerged less interested about whether Puccini, Hawkes or Ladner was primarily responsible for such operatic bliss, than about the simple fact that I had just experienced it.