This `Swallow’ Makes It Summery: Puccini’s “La Rondine” in San Francisco

San Francisco La Rondine: 11/9/07
New review by Janos Gereben
It's somewhat of a mystery why Puccini's 1917 "La Rondine" ("The 
Swallow") is such a neglected, rarely-performed opera. With simple,
repetitious but ravishing melodies, this updated story of "La Traviata"
(good-hearted courtesan finds and loses true - if impecunious - love) is
almost as rare as hen's teeth.
In fact, the San Francisco Opera production opening tonight is only the 
second time it's been seen in the War Memorial. There was a single
performance in 1934 (and Spring Opera Theater productions elsewhere in
the city).
David Gockley took a chance on this cotton-candy Italianate 
Viennese-Hungarian operetta (the best Franz Lehár piece he never wrote)
about love in Paris, reviving it after a hiatus of seven decades. The
risk of filling the house seven times is ameliorated by engaging Angela
Gheorghiu to sing the title role in her San Francisco Opera debut - and,
equally important, assembling a very good cast.
Gheorghiu - a soprano of beautiful, soaring voice - sang the heck out of 
the role, but the diva also fit into an excellent ensemble. In the role
of Ruggero, the man who takes the "fallen woman" away from her
comfortable den of cheerful depravity, Misha Didyk had by far his best
outing in the War Memorial. He has it all: a lyrical lilt, a strongly
projected voice, a seemingly effortless performance.
Anna Christy is the lively Lisette, the maid; Gerald Powers is making 
his local debut as the world-weary, happily exploitative poet, Prunier.
Adler Fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Melody Moore, Katherine Tier, and Ji Young
Yang make fine contributions in this large production. So strong is the
cast that the minor role of sugar daddy Rambaldo is assigned to Philip
Skinner, the mighty bass-baritone.
The Nicolas Joel production, coming from London and Toulouse, is quite 
beautiful, with Ezio Frigerio's sets and Franca Squarciapino's costumes.
Stephen Barlow's direction is misguided, however, forcing artificial,
exaggerated movements on the principals, taking away whatever realism
there is in the work. Gheorghiu and Christy especially overdid the
frisky ACTING at the beginning, Gheorghiu settling down in the second
act, and creating a dramatically more valid portrayal in the long duet
that makes up most of the final act.
Overdoing is also the hallmark of Ion Marin's conducting, those already 
large, sweeping melodies made to thunder as if Walhalla went up in smoke
in a misplaced Twilight of the Cafe Society. Even in the passages not
written fortissimo, Marin's hard-working orchestra stepped all over the
vocal lines.
And yet, the pleasantness of the score, the excellence of the 
principals' performance, and the likelihood that "La Rondine" may not
come around again in this century add up to an easy recommendation to
attend the tale of the Swallow.

Editor's Note: Puccini's rara avis is spotted more frequently in the Southland. 
It is currently warbling away at Lyric Opera San Diego.
It is upcoming in June at Los Angeles Opera.
In 2000 the LAO staged it. See the Alan Rich review.

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