The Guardian, 16 November 2004
By Tim Ashley
Puccini: La Rondine, ROH, London, November 2004
La Rondine is something of an oddity among Puccini's works and many critics, deeming it slight, have dismissed it as inferior to the rest of his output. It does have its flaws, some of which can be traced to its awkward, protracted genesis. The work was commissioned for Vienna in 1914, but its progress was halted by the first world war; the premiere finally, and controversially, took place in Monte Carlo in 1917.

A work of deep, quiet sadness by a composer primarily associated with grand passion, it is singular for its tone rather than its quality. Much is made in the programme of its similarities to Arthur Schnitzler's plays - though a more useful comparison would be with the operas of Richard Strauss, Puccini's arch-rival, whose territory he was perhaps trying to invade. Like Der Rosenkavalier, La Rondine deals with the corrosive effects of time and truth on the relationship between an older, worldly woman and a younger, emotionally naive man.

Ideally, it needs a more intimate staging than the one we have here. This overblown effort by Nicholas Joel is swamped, in part, by a series of heavy art nouveau sets that hint at emotional entrapment, but give the singers little room in which to move.

Musically, however, this is superb. The lovers, Magda and Ruggero, are played by Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann. Gheorghiu, with her dark, liquid tone, beautifully captures the lonely anguish of a woman who must "abandon the illusions she's mistaken for life". Kaufmann, making his long overdue Covent Garden debut, is virile and shy, and sings gloriously. Of the rest of the cast, only Annamaria dell'Oste, strident as Magda's maid Lisette, lets the side down a bit. The opera is exquisitely conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, who flawlessly judges its nuances as sensuality slowly tips into emotional pain.

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