La Rondine (broadcast today in HD) has been absent from the Met for more than 70 years. The house brought it back solely as a vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu and her spouse Roberto Alagna. Why the Met let’s anything by Puccini languish while it finds the resources for Satyagraha or Dr Atomic can only be explained as a death wish.
Magda (aka The Swallow) is a Parisian kept woman who falls in love with Ruggero (a tenor of course) a naif from the country. Ruggero asks his mother for permission to marry Magda which is granted under the assumption that she’s an ok gal – think of La Traviata. Magda realizes that this is not going to work and breaks off the affair. They’re both very sad about parting. Before you write the plot off as outdated imagine that your son, just graduated from college, wants to marry an HIV-positive porn star with tattoos and pierced body parts. We’re just as easily shocked as any generation it just takes different jolts to draw it out.
There’s also Magda’s saucy maid Lisette (a high soprano) who has an affair with a second tenor Prunier. She borrows her mistress’s clothes and ends up in the same ballroom with her in the second act. Here think of Die Fledermaus. The first act is in Magda’s house. The second at Bullier’s. The final act is set in a hotel near Nice.
The opera’s comparative lack of popularity likely relates to its shallow story. Also nobody dies; this absence must have made the composer uneasy considering that both the soprano and leading tenor are unhappy at the curtain. Regardless the opera is full of great tunes. The best among them are Magda’s first act aria “Che il bel sogno” and the second act concertato “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”. Both are the equal of any of their like by Puccini. The duet that concludes the opera is also quite moving. It adds a little more emotion than the end of a brief affair merits. It’s likely that both Magda and Ruggero will soon forget about their fling and life will go on as if it never happened.
Madame Gheorghiu looked better than she did on last season’s telecast of La Boheme. The Met’s Peter Gelb appeared before the show started to announce that Gheorghiu was suffering from a cold but would bravely carry on nonetheless. Singers should not perform if they’re not able to give their best. Gelb shouldn’t give any of them a get out of jail free card. That said she sounded fine and did as much as she could with part given that video director Brian Large had the camera almost inside her nose for much of the performance. Her voice was under control and expressive though it is not as luscious as it used to be.
Alagna’s voice has coarsened. He did not produce a good sound until the last scene where he sounded like a spinto tenor rather than the lyric he once was. In his mid-forties his vocal future is uncertain.
The opera’s other couple Lisette (high soprano) and Prunier take up a lot of time but have little of interest to sing. Marius Brenciu has a nice lyric voice though he resorted to a falsetto high note in his third act solo. Lisette Oropesa was lively as the maid with the same first name. Her voice is a good example of the squeaky high soprano. She has a good stage presence and may develop into a first-rate coloratura – too soon to tell. Samuel Ramey did not have much to do as Rambaldo the older rich man who keeps Magda in high style. Accordingly, the wobble that has taken possession of his voice as he has aged was barely noticeable.
Marco Armiliato conducted with verve and at a crisp pace. He got all of the color and spirit out of Puccini’s wonderfully orchestrated score. He’s a fine presence in the Met’s Italian wing. The audience reaction to what was for most of them a new Puccini opera was rapturous. If opera wants new works it will first have to find a genius.
Stephen Barlow staged Nicolas Joël’s production effectively. Joël is recovering from a stroke and was unable to be in New York for this staging. The action proceeded without fuss allowing the attractive cast to move comfortably. Ezio Frigerio’s sets were beautiful and bright. The Art Deco salon in the first act was striking. Bullier’s was a spacious version of Toulouse-Lautrec. The final act set in the Riviera Hotel was breezy and obviously very high priced. It was probably not too far from the beach.
Now for the lead, I realize I put it at the end rather than the beginning, but I didn’t want to start with a bad attitude. In the middle of the second act there were some ugly sounds like when your computer’s sound card goes bad. This was followed by a decrease in the sound’s amplitude to almost inaudible. This glitch lasted for the rest of the act, through the intermission, and until the start of the third act. And then a cell phone went off.
Several of the more resourceful members of the audience called the Met. They said there was nothing wrong with the transmission. A search of the theater disclosed that no one was in the projection booth. When someone working for the theater (Movies 16, Lubbock TX) was found he (or she) allegedly said that there was a problem with the digital feed. I have no way to know if this problem was local or affected other venues. What I do know is that it ruined the performance. The best part of La Rondine’s music was lost. The system used for these broadcasts was likely made by Microsoft. They have the necessary expertise to screw up this badly. So the next time you go to an HD broadcast from the Met bring a radio and headphones as a backup.
Update: Had an email from a viewer from Maryland saying they had similar technical problems.