Puccini is the world's most popular opera composer, but also, strange to say, a little underrated. The two are probably related. It seems hard to believe that music we enjoy so much could actually be that "good."
Verdi is enormously entertaining, yet grave. Mozart is seriously entertaining, yet suitably "classical." Wagner's relentless portentousness finally wins us over. But Puccini had the misfortune to be enormously entertaining, yet romantic. His greatest operas—Tosca, La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Turandot—share an intensity that some have described as sadistic. La Rondine is nothing of the kind. It's a romance, pure and simple, and a good choice for the Skylark Opera Company of St. Paul, which has hitherto devoted itself largely to operettas.
We went on a hot Sunday afternoon. The theater at Concordia University is only thirteen rows deep. The opera was sung in English, which was a mixed blessing: Italian sounds better, and subtitles would have been helpful even in the English version.
We sat in the back row ($15 cheaper) but could hear everything just fine. The man sitting next to us had neither a computer at home nor a subscription to the Star-Tribune. He got his arts news from a free tabloid called Vita-Min that's recently been discontinued. He had arrived at the theater by bus. (Bless his heart.) I think he went away disappointed. It wasn't Sondheim. You couldn't tell what people were saying. The music was shifty, there weren't that many good "tunes."
We loved it. In the role of Magda, Cecilia Violetta Lopez was superb. I later came across a review of her performance as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata in the Washington Post that's worth repeating.
"Lopez is as compelling a Violetta as I’ve seen. As the consumptive courtesan who, for the purest of reasons, is compelled to relinquish her true love, only ultimately to die in his arms, Lopez managed to infuse every gesture, even in her most consumptive paroxysms, with suggestive sexuality. Her voice, big and rich over its entire range, is remarkably agile for its size and as focused when she sings quietly as it is when she just lets it go. Her “Sempre Libera” was as convincingly radiant and joyful as her “Addio del Passato” was sad and wistful."
We're very lucky to have had her here in Saint Paul, performing on an intimate stage. (Hilary and I are lucky to have shown up, thanks to Carol Jackson's recommendation.) In La Rondine she plays a role similar to that of Violetta, though Puccini had a hard time coming up with an ending that suited him. He rewrote it several times.
I guess Puccini's music is like a drug, because it puts you in a mood to have more of it. Back home, it's only six p.m., and Hilary finds a complete performance of La Rondine on YouTube (for educational TV) in Italian, with Spanish subtitles. Of course, we watch.
Now, don't get me wrong. the Skylark production was very good. But we've jumped to a different level here. Puccini's operas benefit from volume, and lavishness. He was obsessive about the theatrical element: how did the scene work? And here the gushiness for which he's famous is far more pronounced.
In this version Magda (Ainhoa Arteta) can sing ... and she looks like Jessica Lange. Ruggero (Marcus Haddock) sounds Italian, rather than Chinese. (In the Skylark production, Won Whi Choi sang gallantly and inhabited the role of the bumpkin Ruggiero convincingly, but had troubles with diction.) And the Italian language flows.
The third act of La Rondine has always been a little weak. We know this is not going to work out. But it was more than a little disconcerting to see Ramboldo showing up on the beach, after Lisette and Prunier had just arrived. Highly implausible. And it was heartless of Ruggiero to reject Magda, just when she needed him most.
No, Puccini's first ending—the one the Skylark did—is better. Magda knows that a "fallen woman" like her is unfit to appear before Ruggiero's mother. Goodbye Ruggiero. Back to Ramboldo. Oh, well.