The Spectator, 4 December 2004
Michael Tanner
Puccini: La Rondine, ROH, London November 2004
Problem piece
Like many artists, Puccini seems happiest when creating beings whom he can proceed to subject to torture, while encouraging compassion and grief on the part of spectators. In this respect he is most like the God whom he had been brought up to believe in. Happiness, for him, is always the temporary condition which makes pain more vivid. He is good at creating fleeting comedy, so that when the mood darkens we sense how much deeper he is being. In Gianni Schicchi he makes us laugh all the way to the end only because of an omnipresent corpse, so that the piece is macabre as much as it’s merry. That all means that Puccini was not ideally placed to write an operetta, in which no one takes anything seriously and they all dance through the night and don’t have a daytime life to speak of.

No wonder he had even more trouble than usual knocking La Rondine into shape, and not only because of the advent of the collapse of the civilisation he knew while he was writing it. His basic problem was the matter of tone, and the main interest the work has is that he never solved it, so the piece remains a problem for listeners, too: how much should we care about these characters? The one who has the toughest luck is the hero Ruggero, an innocent who comes to Paris, sings a song in the city’s honour, falls in love with one of its typically flighty female inhabitants, and loses her because she is ashamed of her past. Puccini wasn’t able to give this figure any character we can grasp or care about, which means a hole in the centre of La Rondine.

The Swallow herself is more fully drawn, fully enough in fact for her renunciation of Ruggero on grounds of her unworthiness to seem absurd, but not more fully than that. The obligatory contrasting pair of lovers, traditionally more lightweight than the central pair, can’t be more lightweight than this central pair, so end up as mere sound-producing organisms.

Yet there are charms in La Rondine, just enough to warrant its occasional revival, and the Royal Opera has actually scored its biggest success of the season so far with it. It’s somewhat better now than when it was unveiled in 2002. Emmanuel Villaume’s conducting is more relaxed, less insistently dazzling than Antonio Pappano’s was. He is just as supportive of his singers, and his cast is almost ideal.

Angela Gheorghiu has never been in finer form, and her singing of Doretta’s song is enchanting, while she manages to make the phoney end of the opera as momentarily convincing as it could ever be. Her stage presence is the most radiant of any contemporary operatic star. But close behind is Jonas Kaufmann as Ruggero, giving his first fully staged performance in the UK, and showing that he is as gifted a singing actor as he is a Lieder recitalist. Naturally graceful, he contrives in this role to be awkward and a grateful recipient of Magda’s lessons in love, only to have his teacher brusquely announce that their classes are over, leaving him curled up and sobbing; it won’t be long before he recovers, we are bound to feel. Among the rest of the cast Robert Lloyd is commanding as Rambaldo, Magda’s ‘protector’; the only annoyance is Annamaria Dell’Oste’s Lisette, making a tiresome part insufferable. The evening left me thinking, though that can’t have been anyone’s intention.

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