The Sunday Telegraph, Nov. 21, 2004
By Peter Reed
Puccini: La Rondine, ROH, London November 2004
The swallow with no illusions about love
I missed the Royal Opera's production of Puccini's La Rondine two years ago, and although I had heard all about the magnificent sets (designed by Ezio Frigerio), the reality was still pretty amazing, the opulent art nouveau stained-glass set for the hotel in Nice encouraging a ripple of applause at this first revival. Franca Squarciapino's costumes are beautifully observed, and Nicolas Joel's discreetly plotted direction has great lightness of touch.

La Rondine (The Swallow) is probably Puccini's least well-known mature work. Originally commissioned by a Viennese theatre to write an opera, Puccini turned it into a lyric comedy with a much wider emotional range; and, while it is set in Paris and Nice, there is a decidedly Viennese lilt to its many bittersweet waltz tunes. The simple story - a kept woman embarks on a passionate affair with a much younger man; but in the end she returns to the loveless security of her benefactor - has echoes of La traviata, but the opera's vivid conversational style is much closer to Richard Strauss; and there are passages, in the opening prelude and the Act II dances, for example, that suggest Richard Rogers - Carousel came to mind.

Of the original cast, only Angela Gheorghiu remains as Magda, the swallow who yearns to fly south. Her cool delivery enhanced the feeling of objective self-appraisal - here is a woman who knows that time is not on her side and who has no illusions about life and love. It still comes as a bit of shock to be reminded how luxuriously expressive her dark velvet voice is, and her use of exquisitely refined portamenti is almost indecently beautiful.

The young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, making his opera debut in this country, gives a devastingly truthful portrait of the young Ruggero, whose ardour sweeps away his diffidence and naivety; his singing, virile and controlled, is completely involving; and his dance-duet with Magda in the Act II cafe scene managed to be both drop-dead sexy and infinitely sad. Kurt Streit was convincingly effete as Prunier, the poet/lounge lizard, and his romance with Magda's lippy maid Lisette, assertively sung by Annamaria Dell'Oste, was neatly directed to mirror the fortunes of Magda and Ruggero. Emmanuel Villaume conducted the score with a sure sense of its kaleidoscopic emotionalism.

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