Puccini’s La rondine is somewhat more emotion than action driven. The Brief Encounter-esque plot, in which Magda, the mistress of the banker Rambaldo Fernandez, 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.
It consequently requires performers who are engaging enough to take us on every step of their mental journey, and fortunately that is just what the Royal Opera House’s revival of Nicholas Joël’s 2002 production provides. Reprising her role of Magda, there is a cleanness in Angela Gheorghiu’s vocal lines that appeals to both the ear and the heart, and yet her voice is also possessed of a shimmering vibrancy and proves capable of great subtleness. If sometimes in her lower register she feels underpowered, this is chiefly a shame because the times at which she is heard there remind us just exactly what we are missing out on. Making his role début for the Royal Opera as Ruggero, Charles Castronovo is equally impressive, bringing a degree more weight to his soaring romantic tenor sound than is demanded from Ferrando, a part he has played several times for the company.
Both performers bring out all of the beauty and emotion in Puccini’s music, playing to some of its hyperbolic strengths, while simultaneously giving the impression of keeping something in reserve. It seems as if they have confidence in their natural presence as performers and so feel that they can create more textured, yet still sufficiently gripping, performances by holding something back. If so, they are perfectly correct in this belief, except that in Act III for once I was left wishing that it had gone on for another ten minutes as it felt as if not every ounce of emotion had yet been wrung out. This is, however, a compliment in the sense that this act, in which Magda dwells cumbersomely on the point that she can never be Ruggero’s, can drag mercilessly if the performers fail to draw us into their feelings.
La rondine enables set designers to exploit the charm and appeal of Art Nouveau and in Ezio Frigerio’s sets the structural aspects of the style such as simple, cuboid columns vie with murals, stained glass, mosaics and decorative wrought iron. It is a shame that the scene in Bullier’s, the most sought after venue in Paris, has a balcony that no-one in the amphitheatre can see, but the set here is exquisite as the carefully placed columns create a truly three-dimensional area with the ballroom flowing out from behind the bar and dining area. This scene is executed to perfection, with the entire ensemble helping to spin the emotional colour wheel that Magda and Ruggero ride throughout it. Love, as we learn here, can make a moment stand in infinite calm as the world frantically turns around it, or be something to be shouted about from the rafters.
The cast surrounding Gheorghiu and Castronovo is also strong. Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas makes an outstanding Royal Opera début as Lissette, Edgaras Montvidas (a former Jette Parker Young Artist) is suitably mischievous yet multi-layered as Prunier, while Pietro Spagnoli is an excellent Rambaldo. Under the baton of Marco Armiliato, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s output feels a little staid in Act I, but it soon engages with both the sweep and intricacies of Puccini’s enigmatic score to contribute handsomely to the unleashing of the emotions that lie at the very heart of this opera.
The Royal Opera House’s La rondine will be relayed live on BP Summer Big Screens around the country on 11 July. For details of venues click here.
Ermonela Jaho sings Magda and Atalla Ayan plays Ruggero on 13, 17 and 20 July.