West Green House Opera's production of Puccini's La rondine Photograph: John Hobley

West Green House Opera – Puccini’s La rondine

Puccini
La rondine – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami [sung in Italian with English side-titles to a reduced orchestration by Tony Burke]

Yvette – Jana Holesworth
Bianca – Laura Ruhi Vidal
Prunier – William Morga
Magda – Galina Averina
Lisette – Lorena Naz Pieto
Suzy – Kamilla Dunstan
Rambaldo – Philip Smith
Gobin – Jonathan Cooke
Perichaud / Major Domo – Meilir Jones
Crebillon – Thomas Colwell
Ruggero – Robyn Lyn Evans
Georgette – Esther Mallett
Students – Osian Wyn Bowen & Robert Forrest

West Green House Opera Orchestra
Jonathan Lyness

Richard Stude – Director & Designer
Sarah Bath – Lighting Designer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 24 July, 2021
Venue: West Green House, Thackhams Lane, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, UK

La rondine (1917) is probably the least performed and familiar of Puccini’s mature operas, but each time it receives an outing it is revealed as a quintessential work of that composer, even if more delicate and subtle (and perhaps more stimulating as a result). For general opera-going audiences that has understandably meant more diffuse and less memorable than such vivid classics as La bohème and Verdi’s La traviata, with which La rondine shares certain elements of its plot in common. But the difference is that the latter does not coerce the audience’s emotions and sympathies nearly so much, leaving room for more imaginative and abstract engagement with it: the affluent set at Magda and Rambaldo’s salon are a far cry from the impecunious students of La bohème; Ruggero is the victim of nothing more tragic than his own naiveté, rather than such impregnable forces as disease or social conventions and expectations; and the characters apart from him are otherwise too knowing and worldly wise to call forth from an audience any straightforward moral judgement upon them.

As a drama, therefore, it might be regarded as a more nuanced examination of character, and also noticed that chronologically it tellingly falls between two of Richard Strauss’s operas which have some similarity in themes – the ‘sophisticated comedy’ of Der Rosenkavalier in which there is a cheerful celebration of polyamorous love without embarrassment or apology; and Die Liebe der Danae which considers the fact that any romantically involved people must inevitably contemplate the past life of their lovers. The lyrical, melodic sweep of Puccini’s score remains unmistakably his own however.

Richard Studer’s production seems to set the action in the 1950s (demonstrated in the colours and styles of the women’s dresses) and this period of prosperity soon after the Second World War might imply some sort of dialogue with the setting, before the First, of the original during the complaisant life of the 19th century. If so, that is not explicitly explored further, except that the shimmering golden walls of the set evoke Klimt and therefore Secessionist Vienna, where the opera had been intended to be premiered before war scuppered that. Clusters of gilts leaves on tall stems, like a screen, suggests the artificiality of the attitudes and relationships of the circle around Magda at Paris (however comfortable they themselves appear to be with this) as compared with the (doomed) sincerity of Ruggero’s feelings as he comes into contact with that world. The production otherwise proceeds with choreographic fidelity to the libretto, but executed with deft precision and vivacity.

In order to cope with the realities of the pandemic, West Green do not use their usual enclosed auditorium, but have constructed a stage on the shore of the island in the garden’s lake. The audience sit in pavilions on the other side of the water in the main part of the gardens, such an arrangement drawing a pleasing, if coincidental, parallel with the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago. Having the stage positioned across the water necessarily puts the narrative at a physical, and therefore emotional and dramaturgical, distance from the audience, as surely as any proscenium arch might frustrate the attempts of the prevailing impetus of modern theatrical method to broach the ‘fourth wall’. But the glorious backdrop of nature at West Green’s exquisite gardens bridges that to some extent, and the audience’s sentiments can only be stirred and warmed by the lighting on the stage and projected on to the surrounding trees. The ambience is a captivating experience of its own, therefore, and virtually renders irrelevant this production’s retreat into a very traditional form of theatrical presentation.

The cast generally provide their own musical glitter, further enriching this performance. Galina Averina is a forthright Magda, but expressing herself with musical charm and allure, underlining her control of events. Robyn Lyn Evans uses his head voice as Ruggero, issuing in a lyrical, vulnerable sense of the character’s innocence rather than any contorted emotional introspection or uncertainty. William Morgan plays Prunier in an aptly comic, overbearing manner, boldly projecting the poet’s provocations about the nature of love and his familiarity with the ways of the Parisian social scene. Lorena Naz Pieto is a lively but discreet Lisette (Magda’s maid with whom Prunier has some form of attachment) and could have risked more flirtatiousness. Philip Smith’s Rambaldo sounds almost unworldly and unconcerned that his mistress, Magda, may temporarily cast her affections elsewhere, knowing that this eponymous ‘swallow’ will return to the security he offers.

Despite the scaled down forces of the West Green House Opera Orchestra, they launch the performance with real gusto under the baton of Jonathan Lyness, and maintain that in the cut and thrust of the dialogue at Magda’s salon and Bullier’s bar, alongside the repartee of the other characters. But Lyness breathes a more subtle ebb and flow into Puccini’s score as the moods and situations of the drama dictate elsewhere. If Puccini more consciously experimented with Debussian musical Impressionism (for want of a better word) in Il tabarro (also set in Paris, and forming part of his very next operatic project, Il trittico) then already in La rondine one often hears pointillistic scraps of melodic material as in the music of the French composer, kaleidoscopically brought out in the almost chamber-sized ensemble and Tony Burke’s re-orchestration used here. In this opera that often speaks of the ‘mystery’ of love, Lyness also tellingly draws out an enigmatic, integrated sonority in the chains of parallel chords, which Puccini had used before, but which here more obviously (and surely, correctly) hark back to the Debussy of La mer, Images, and Pelléas et Mélisande. Straightforward as this production may be, it is realised with alacrity, and there are enough aspects about it which should give pause for thought about this overlooked opera.

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