La rondine – Commedia lirica in three Acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami after one by A. M. Willner & Heinz Reichert [Sung in Philip Walsh’s reduced orchestration and in an English translation by Robert Hess]
Magda – Ilona Domnich
Ruggero – James Edwards
Rambaldo – Charles Johnston
Lisette – Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson
Prunier – Christopher Turner
Yvette / Ensemble – Celena Bridge
Bianca / Ensemble – Sarah Richmond
Suzy / Ensemble – Katherine Aitken
Gobin / Ensemble – Gitai Fisher
Perichaud / Ensemble – Adam Gilbert
Chroma Chamber Ensemble
Ben Occhipinti – Director
Emma Wee – Designer
Charlie Lucas – Lighting designer
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 10 June, 2014
Venue: Iford Manor, Bradford-on-Avon, near Bath, South-West England
Iford Manor, deep in the Somerset/Wiltshire countryside near Bradford-upon-Avon, provides a ravishing setting for the Iford Arts summer opera festival. Iford Manor’s Italianate cloister-folly can fit about 100 people, who sit on three sides of the cloister (with the orchestra fitted into the fourth) looking into the courtyard and its central stone well-head, a fixture directors and designers have to work around. Although audience and performers have a roof over their heads (a canvas one now covers the courtyard), you feel that nature is very close. With the spectators separated from singers only by a low wall and slender pillars, this is very much opera up close and intimate, which accords well with Iford’s friendly, laid-back ambience.
Puccini is said to have referred to La rondine as his “dear, forgotten child”, and it caused him grief that it never quite made the move into operetta. The story – La traviata minus the tragedy and TB – has a wistfulness never quite balanced by the Parisian demi-mondaine glitter, and the ending is flimsy. Yet it adapts well, either to the sort of grand staging seen last year at Covent Garden or to this chamber version, and Philip Walsh’s skilful reduction of the score has the effect of exposing the big tunes – which Puccini leans upon heavily – in a way redolent of operetta and musicals.
Beyond a few props, the performing area rules out much in the way of sets, so that the atmosphere of pre-Great War self-conscious glamour (that is, around the time Puccini wrote the work) is all down to the cast of ten, five of whom neatly cover twelve supporting roles with panache. There’s an element of moving the cast around so that each of the three blocks of audience gets equal benefit, which in the Bullier nightclub Act Two resulted in a centrifuge of activity, and the quieter final Act, in which the singers weren’t required to project their socks off, admittedly came as a bit of a relief.
Ben Occhipinti’s direction rightly brought La rondine’s strength as a conversation piece to the fore. Some full-on singing obscured the words, but enough came through to make the pull between brittle sophistication and elemental love credible. The only design misgiving I had concerned Emma Wee’s decision to dress the poet/lounge-lizard Prunier in a country suit rather than evening dress. He is, after all, an observer of the glittering social whirl about which he is so cynical.
As the heroine Magda (‘the swallow’ of the title), Ilona Domnich compensated for the role’s lack of development with a sphinx-like self-possession, the kept woman who intuitively knows the extent to which she controls and is controlled, and her powerful soprano exuded a sense of glamorous resignation – her contribution to ‘Chi il bel sogno’ had the audience itching to applaud. James Edwards (who sang the supporting role of Gobin in the Royal Opera’s 2004 revival) was strongly cast as the young, infatuated Ruggero. Edwards made Ruggero’s diffidence in the face of metropolitan sophistication palpable, and he put his strong, lyrical tenor to fine use in the show-stopping ‘Paris, the city of desire’. He was very touching in his flirtation scene with Magda leading to his declaration of love in Act Two and approached an Alfredo-like gravitas when Magda gives him up in Act Three to return to her old life.
As Prunier, Christopher Turner showed an incisive understanding of how the role’s Noel Coward-type detachment is vital in defining the headstrong Ruggero, and his graceful tenor’s warmth and expressive range added greatly to the sub-plot of Prunier’s romance with Magda’s maid Lisette, a finely sung, sly comic turn from Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson. Charles Johnston neatly sketched in Magda’s protector Rambaldo, with just a hint of Puccini’s sadism coming to the surface. Oliver Gooch’s conducting drew much detail from the reduced scoring, eloquently played by the Chroma Ensemble.