Evening Standard
Puccini: La Rondine, ROH, London November 2004
BLOWSY and lavish with tunes, Puccini's La Rondine has returned to Covent Garden with a refreshed staging and largely new cast. Angela Gheorghiu still sings Magda, the "swallow" of the title, as she did when Nicolas Joel's production was new two years ago. Now her husband, Roberto Alagna, has been replaced by the exciting German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, making his house debut as her young lover, Ruggero.

La Rondine is the closest Puccini came to operetta, full of slow waltzes and other hinted dance rhythms. The slim plot is uneven and some find the piece irritatingly saccharine. I would argue the reverse. The poignant dilemma of a woman torn between loveless money or moneyless love is feelingly expressed and begins to stray towards the complex emotional world of Puccini's contemporary Richard Strauss.

The opening night of this Covent Garden production was full of pleasure without ever quite catching fire. The staging looks sumptuous.
Turn-of the century Paris is beautifully created via a cocktail of Tiffany glass and Wiener Werkstatte detail in Ezio Frigerio's sets. Franca Squarciapino's elegant, flapperish costumes suggest a period just after the opera's wartime premiere in 1917.

Musically, however, something was missing. Emmanual Villaume, conducting, sounded over-polite, as if unwilling to indulge in the music's schmaltzy excesses. Kaufmann sings with glorious control and depth, especially in the charged third act, but his performance as yet is constrained.

A little of Alagna's stage flair and look-at-me panache would give edge to an already fine performance. The expert Robert Lloyd as the overthrown Rambaldo, Kurt Streit's smooth Prunier and Annamaria dell'Oste's spirited Lisette, together with a well-drilled Royal Opera chorus, provide welcome depth and variety.

The great draw, of course, was Gheorghiu, ice cool and compelling yet strangely disengaged. She remains technically breathtaking, floating her lines and holding everything in reserve for the big, impassioned outbursts. Her pianissimo singing teeters as near the edge of audibility as it's sensible to get. The role demands her to be brittle and coquettish, but you can't help thinking the seductive Kaufmann deserves someone slightly more cuddly.

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