The Times, 15 November 2004
By Hilary Finch
Puccini: La Rondine, ROH, London November 2004
ONE swallow might not make a summer, but London's first cold winds of winter are certainly being warmed by the return of Angela Gheorghiu as the Rondine she created unforgettably in concert, on disc and, two years ago, in Nicolas Joel's lavish production of Puccini's mature and hitherto little-known commedia lirica.

Once again, as the love-bird Magda, Gheorghiu incarnates the strange, sad music of the sun-seeking swallow - the salon mistress who flies from Paris to the Riviera to find true love, only to return, another of Puccini's sacrificial victims. That potent mix of sentimentality and emotional sadism unique to Puccini is distilled into fable here; and there are times when a simple student production can reach the mark best of all.

But only a churl could complain when faced with the art nouveau splendour of Ezio Frigerio's sets, Franca Squarciapino's hedonistically detailed 1920s costumes, and a production which delights in meticulous observation, from the glint of a golden powder compact, to the fastidious movements of a porter's white-gloved hands.

The musical detail is pungent, too, with Emmanuel Villaume conducting with vigour and elan an imaginatively variegated cast. Gheorghiu, in her vocal prime, remains perfectly cast: the subtle, musky timbre of her voice inhabits every nuance of longing, fear, self-doubt and ardour. And her final cry of anguished resignation still reaches the heart, and almost makes her renunciation credible.

This time, her beloved Ruggero is sung by the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann - something of a revelation for those who have heard him only in recital in this country. From his enraptured aria in praise of Paris, to the heady dance-duet with Magda, and on to his final extended pleas for her to stay, this is a formidable house and role debut. Kaufmann's is a robust, truly Italianate tenor, with a stage presence which gives substance to a weakly-drawn part.

Kurt Streit's narcissistic and chauvinistic Prunier, and Annamaria del'Oste's firecracker of a Lisette (another house debut) make a winsome double-act as poet and parlour-maid; and Robert Lloyd as Magda's dark protector, Ramaldo, is wonderfully and fearfully indestructible.

Plenty of new talent around, too: Vilar Young Artists such as James Edwards, Jared Holt and Victoria Nava twinkle in the opera's many cameo roles, and in the stylish set pieces in which the Royal Opera Chorus and a feisty team of dance-acrobats add to the shameless feel-good factor.

 back top