La Rondine, Royal Opera House, London, May 2002
Edward Greenfield, Guardian, 9 May 2002
Puccini's La Rondine (The Swallow) has reached Covent Garden some 85
years late. The work was the nearest the composer came to a flop, yet,
as this traditional production by Nicolas Joel demonstrates, it has all
the ingredients for success.
What was wrong originally was the timing. It was commissioned by the
Vienna Karltheater in 1913, with Lehar operettas as the likely model.
But Puccini found his plans tangled up in the first world war, and the
piece eventually received its premiere in Monte Carlo in 1917. Its
mixture of lightness and poignancy was alien to the mood of the time,
and it was quickly written off.
Yet Puccini took endless trouble with the libretto, which offers a
cunning mixture of La Traviata (young innocent infatuated with kept
woman) and Die Fledermaus (big central party scene with maid appearing
in mistress's clothes). Previously it has seemed problematic that the
exuberant high-jinks of the second act are followed by Magda's
renunciation of her young lover, Ruggero. That final act can feel like a
dying fall. It is the achievement of this Covent Garden staging that the
sweet-sour close is so effective.
Casting is vital, and here Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna have
found a vehicle made for them. Gheorghiu gives an inspired reading of
the letter from Ruggero's mother, masterfully conveying the
heart-tugging conflict of Magda as she realises the impossibility of
marrying her young lover. On the final curtain she stands ramrod stiff,
looking straight out at the audience, preparing to face her old life
Gheorghiu is equally good in act one as a mature courtesan, her voice
gloriously full and rich. As Ruggero, Alagna charmingly conveys eager
innocence. Gianluigi Gelmetti's sympathetic conducting brings out the
score's striking melodic motifs, each one relating to a recurrent theme,
not least that of the swallow flying away.
There is fine work from the supporting cast, even Cinzia Forte, who
overacts outrageously as Magda's maid, Lisette. The second tenor role of
Prunier is often feebly cast, so as not to embarrass the principle tenor
singing Ruggero. Here the part is taken by Charles Workman, who is
characterful and vocally strong. He provides a clear contrast with
Alagna, who is never in danger of being outshone.
Lovebirds bring the house down
Rupert Christiansen, Telegraph, 9 May 2002
La Rondine was Puccini's response to the success of The Merry Widow and
Der Rosenkavalier, his attempt to write a bitter-sweet romantic comedy
without the morbid emotionalism which had become his trademark.
Caption: Charming match: Alagna blossomed gloriously while Gheorghiu
sang with firm phrasing and elegant musicality
Set in 19th-century demi-monde Paris, its storyline echoes La traviata,
La Boheme and Louise. The worldly grisette Magda thinks she has found
true love with the naive student Ruggero, who knows nothing of her past
They move to Provence together, but when Ruggero proposes marriage,
Magda (the eponymous rondine, or swallow) runs away from respectability
and returns to her natural Parisian habitat.
Why is La Rondine not better known? Well, it's a slim tale with a silly
sub-plot, rather too much chitter-chatter and not enough melodic meat.
The musical inspiration dwindles markedly in the anti-climactic final
But the score has a freshness and simplicity which cannot fail to charm,
as well as a corking second act with pretty waltzes, a touching duet and
the heart-rending Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso. It also has attractive
leading roles for soprano and tenor which suit those operatic lovebirds,
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, to a T.
Opera North has a successful production in its repertory, but Nicolas
Joel's staging brings the piece to Covent Garden for the first time. It
moves the dramatis personae around efficiently and does not try any
More importantly, it has some perfectly fabulous sets and costumes,
designed by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, which update the
original Second Empire period to a palatial Edwardian beaux-arts milieu.
Critics tend to hate this sort of window-dressing as much as audiences
adore it - and on this occasion, I stand unashamedly on the latter side.
I can't be so enthusiastic about Gianluigi Gelmetti's coarse conducting.
No complaints, however, about the supporting cast, although there are
several British soubrettes who could have sung the role of Lisette less
acidulously then the imported Cinzia Forte.
And what of Alagna and Gheorghiu, who have made a superb recording of
the piece, and whose availability prompted this revival? I waver in my
estimate of their talents, but this was an occasion on which they
justified all the brouhaha. Gheorghiu sang with firm phrasing and
elegant musicality, spinning some exquisite olive-tinted tone and giving
Magda credible vocal personality. Alagna, more relaxed than of late,
blossomed gloriously in Act 3. Together they brought the house down, and
rightly so. It is not often one hears singing of this calibre
(Photo Caption: Charming match: Alagna blossomed gloriously while
Gheorghiu sang with firm phrasing and elegant musicality)
Star quality wasted on a load of tosh
Rodney Milnes, The Times, 9 May 2002
Puccini's operetta is as light (and insubstantial) as thistledown. It
needs very careful handling if it is to come off in the theatre, and
musically it gets it at Covent Garden: it's beautifully conducted and
very strongly sung.
In the pit, Gianluigi Gelmetti has the ebb and flow, the hedonistic
charm of the melodies at his fingertips, and the orchestra responded
with some lovely playing. The quiet close of the second act was such
stuff as Puccinian dreams are made of.
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are nicely cast in the leading
roles. Her soprano is steadily filling out, as is her voluptuous figure:
she looks and sounds simply gorgeous, and part of Tuesday evening was
spent wondering where she will go from here, into what heavier roles she
When seeing the film of Tosca, released this week, I thought it would be
a while before she attempted the role on stage, but now I'm not so sure.
Alagna is turning into a formidable actor. He's a natural for romantic
leads and goes through the motions handsomely, but even when seated at
the side of the stage in semi-darkness, he didn't switch off for a
second. A slight edge to his tone is cause for worry, and for wondering
whether he shouldn't have stuck to the French roles he was born to sing,
but he certainly delivers the goods. The supporting roles were well
cast, with Cinzia Forte sparkling away as the maid Lisette and Charles
Workman working hard to make the tiresome poet Prunier even vaguely
If only that were all to report on. Puccini accepted the commission for
an operetta in Vienna for a great deal of money and as part of a battle
with Ricordi, his publishers. Tito Ricordi described the result as "bad
Lehár", which is a bit unfair. It's rather good Lehár.
The composer rejected the Viennese libretto and bullied Giuseppe Adami
into adapting it into Italian. The result, with elements of Traviata,
Fledermaus, plus Massenet's Manon and Sapho, is novelettish tosh: kept
woman of a certain age finds true lurve with a provincial lad ten years
her junior, but renounces him because of her past. The characters are
neither believable nor in any way worthy of our attention. The thought
of this escapist drivel being composed and premiered (1914-17) while the
world was tearing itself apart, slaughtering "half the seed of Europe,
one by one", verges on the offensive.
The potential offensiveness is compounded in Bow St with an insanely
overblown production (Nicolas Joel) in lavish decor (Ezio Frigerio) that
makes the characters even less believable. Magda's gilded cage is a huge
Art Deco palace, Bullier's an upmarket cocktail bar where no one would
go slumming, and the love nest on the Riviera looks like one of the
grander hotels on the Lido. The action makes no sense even on its own
terms. How sad to see the Royal Opera spending so much money on so
trivial a pursuit.
Hugh Canning, Sunday Times, 12 May 2002
In ENO's Lulu and the Royal Opera's La rondine, London has two
productions to be proud of, says Hugh Canning
For too long, Nicholas Payne's English National Opera has failed to
steal a march on a Royal Opera tentatively recovering from the
catastrophe of the closure period of its home theatre, so it is a
pleasure to be able to report a triumphant return to form with the
company's first production of Berg's Lulu, unseen in London for close on
two decades. Almost simultaneously, the Royal Opera confirms its return
to the big league of international houses with a sumptuous-looking,
starrily cast Covent Garden premiere of Puccini's La rondine (The
Swallow) - a less important addition to the repertoire, perhaps, but one
which supplies a handsome framework for the return of the popular
couple, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Their outstanding EMI
recording under the baton of the Royal Opera's
music-director-in-waiting, Antonio Pappano has raised the stock of this
neglected "Cinderella" of the mature Puccini and their joint appearance
in Nicolas Joël's new staging - a co- production with the Théâtre du
Capitole de Toulouse - should fire public enthusiasm for the piece
around the world.
It's a long time since I have heard a gasp of wonderment at Covent
Garden as the curtain rises on a set, but such was the response of
Tuesday's first night public to the dazzling hotel conservatory - an art
nouveau fantasy in stained glass of vines heaving with fruit - designed
by Ezio Frigerio. This is the setting for the short-lived romantic idyll
on the French riviera of the sophisticated Parisian demi-mondaine, Magda
de Civry (Gheorghiu) - the "swallow" of the title - and her youthful
lover from provincial Montauban, Ruggero Lastouc (Alagna). Visually this
Rondine harks back to an age of operatic luxury that we had all thought
long since past. Undoubtedly there will be curmudgeons who wish it were,
but such feasts for the eyes are rare in London and I would bet my
bottom euro that the lion's share of the design budget came from
Toulouse. It could be argued that La rondine is hardly worth such
extravagance. Undoubtedly minor Puccini, it caused the composer endless
grief as he struggled to transform a commission for a Viennese operetta
into a viable "lyric comedy". Always on the look-out for subjects that
were genuinely new, he must have been painfully conscious of the
disparaging analogies critics would make with Verdi's La traviata, and
the obvious filching by his librettist of the character of Magda's
cheeky maid from Die Fledermaus. Like Adele in Johann Strauss's
masterpiece, Lisette begs her mistress for the evening off and then
turns up at the same ball wearing her clothes.
Characteristically, Puccini was disastisfied with the end result and he
tinkered with it, producing three versions, of which Covent Garden
chooses the first but with the addition of Ruggero's entrance aria in
praise of Paris, composed later and included here to fill out the
sketchily drawn tenor lead for Alagna.
No harm in that, though, especially as the Franco-Sicilian sings it so
winningly and presents a convincing portrait of the gauche country boy
bedazzled by metropolitan glitter. Gheorghiu rises magnificently to
their final encounter in the Riviera hotel, rejecting his offer of
marriage because, as a "kept" woman, she would be unable to enter his
mother's house. Earlier she is less convincing, too self-consciously
"stagey" in her Thoroughly Modern Millie outfits and her voice takes
some time to get into gear. Among the supporting cast, Charles Workman
sings the cameo role of the poet, Prunier, with the Italianate grazia of
a Rossini tenor, but his Lisette, the irritatingly pert and shrill
Cinzia Forte is a less welcome import. The brief, though dramatically
important, part of Magda's protector, the banker Rambaldo is undercast
with the inexperienced Darren Jeffrey, who ages-up unconvincingly.
Joel's weakness for conventional operatic business to sustain interest
during the thinner sections of Puccini's score is another throw-back to
a by-gone age of operatic production, but he is not helped by Gianluigi
Gelmetti's sterile conducting of music which Pappano transformed into
vintage Puccini. One hopes the incoming music director will take charge
of a revival. Then Covent Garden's success might be complete.
Heavyweights for Puccini Lite
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 9 May 2002
It is time to rewrite the reference books. The leading dictionary of
opera states that La rondine has "never been seen at Covent Garden", but
as of Tuesday night a bit of sub-editing is needed. Puccini's
much-neglected lyric comedy, premiered in 1917, has turned up at last.
Its route to the stage of the Royal Opera House has been surreptitious.
During the years of closure the Royal Opera was looking for lesser-
known works to present in concert and chanced upon La rondine as a
vehicle for opera's most celebrated married couple, Angela Gheorghiu and
Roberto Alagna. They had already made an award-winning recording of the
opera, so it must have seemed an obvious choice. Now a further step
forwards has brought a fully staged production, starring the same
Produced by Nicolas Joel and designed by Ezio Frigerio, this is a
co-production with the Theatre du Capitole, Toulouse. A few years back
they sent us a production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette that looked as
if it was set in a railway siding. As a thank-you, we are repaying the
compliment with a staging of La rondine so glamorous that it very nearly
suffocates with Parisian chic.
The curtain goes up on a salon that looks like a double-page spread from
an interior design magazine circa 1925. The walls are covered with Mucha
paintings. If this were a real room, the curators of the V&A would be hovering
outside so they could dismantle it and rush it off to the museum before
anybody else could get their hands on it.
The other two acts - an improbably cavernous nightclub graced by mighty
art deco Egyptian pillars and a vast conservatory on the Riviera - are
hardly conceived on a smaller scale. Never mind that Puccini thought he
was setting La rondine in the period of the French Second Empire or that
this opera demands a sense of intimacy above all. When we are given
settings as grand as these, it is no time to quibble.
It is one of the strange features of this lop-sided opera that the best
tune - in fact, just about the only tune - comes right at the beginning.
Gheorghiu sang "Che il bel sogno" with the most radiant tone. As the
romantic Magda, she was playful, intense, touchingly poignant as she
read the fateful letter in the last act, a different character from any
other she has played here.
Alagna's first entrance as Ruggero also made him an individual, a
wide-eyed provincial boy taking his first steps into Parisian high
society, but it was not long before he grew up into a stock operatic
tenor. These days Alagna's voice has lost some of its youthful bloom,
but a few strained phrases apart, he sang with much Italianate ardour.
If only he could pull a handful of soft, honeyed notes out of the hat as
The other roles in La rondine do not count for much. Cinzia Forte worked
overtime as the housemaid Lisette to drum up some personality and rather
shrill top notes. Charles Workman was a nicely urbane Prunier. Mary
Hegarty, Jacqueline Miura and Eirian James made a lively trio as Magda's
friends. The conductor was Gianluigi Gelmetti, dealing neatly with all
the score's surface glitter.
Is there anything deeper to La rondine? Probably not - it rarely gives
the feeling that Puccini had to compose the music, as every other one of
his operas does. But it does not often get a performance as lavish or as
affecting as this. Gheorghiu and Alagna - especially Gheorghiu on top
vocal form - have not sounded better together since they first sang La
Boheme here a decade ago.
Puccini's secret jewel revealed
Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard, 8 May 2002
Voluptuous and rhapsodic, spinning tune from golden tune, La Rondine
must rank as Puccini's best kept secret. Written near the end of his
life when Europe was on the brink of war, it caused the composer
problems even after its premiere in 1917. He once referred to it as
"absolute trash" and claimed he was "vomiting" over the orchestration
(which, in fact, is among his most bejewelled, rich with hidden foxtrots
and curiously oriental five-note scales). By the time of his death in
1924 he was still hurt by the work's lacklustre reputation.
He would surely have warmed to the rapturous reception given to Covent
Garden's first fully-staged production of the work (mounted jointly with
Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse). Lovingly and intelligently directed by
Nicolas Joël, it looked handsome and expensive, with an elegant
Muchameets-Tiffany set by Ezio Frigerio, and lavish Twenties costumes by
The real cause for excitement was a superb international cast, headed by
opera's most adored married couple, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu,
long associated with the work since their acclaimed 1996 recording.
Alagna as the lovesick innocent, Ruggero, sang with that unguarded
passion that makes his performances so touching and vulnerable. He
tackled his high notes with the ardour of a boy tossing a ball ever
higher in the air. On the rare occasions he missed, you knew he had
given his all. Gheorghiu, always a cooler customer, sang Magda (the
swallow of the title who travels south for love) with formidable control
and technical prowess. Her voice is capable of a weightless transparency
perfect for this work.
First conceived as a Viennese-style operetta but more lyrical and
ambiguous than that implies, La Rondine has echoes of La Traviata
without the illness or death. Magda is the mistress of an older man but
succumbs to young Ruggero after a night on the town. He wants to marry
her. She, confessing herself a loose woman, refuses, as much for her own
freedom as for his good name. A somewhat heavy-handed subplot gave the
admirable American tenor Charles Workman deserved prominence as Prunier
the poet, with Cinzia Forte a pugnacious, if irritating, Lisette.
The conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti notched up the emotional intensity
superbly as the score demands. No one makes music sob quite as
convincingly as Puccini; he's won a hundred Oscars for his cinematic
imitators. The ROH orchestra responded warmly. So too did the
magnificent chorus, especially in the grand Act II set-piece.
As he took his curtain call, Alagna wiped away a tear. Gheorghiu smiled
brightly and pecked him on the cheek. Were we applauding life or art?
Hard to say. Judge for yourself by queuing for one of the 67 "day
seats". This opulent rarity is worth it.
Value for money, short on change
Edward Seckerson, The Independent, 13 May 2002
Newcomers to Puccini's La Rondine will experience an acute attack of
operatic deja vu . They'll be thinking Die Fledermaus in Acts I and II;
they'll be wondering why Bullier's reminds them so much of the Cafe
Momus in La Boheme. And isn't that final act a kind of hybrid of Manon
Lescaut and La Traviata? Enough already. When a show is as easy on the
eye and ear as this one, should anyone care? Best not to.
Puccini planned to get rich on the proceeds of La Rondine. It was
written for Vienna, where he hoped to replicate the unimaginable success
of Lehar's Merry Widow. There's even a hint of it in the fizzy opening
bars of the prelude. Shortly thereafter comes the poet Prunier's song
"Doretta's Dream", as surefire a hit as Puccini ever penned; and he does
it again in Act II with a waltz song to rival anything in Lehar or
Strauss. But in striving to be someone else, Puccini succeeds only in
becoming a shadow of himself. As music drama, La Rondine is a
non-starter - entirely cosmetic in effect.
Enter Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Should we be reading anything
into the fact that they have so enthusiastically made La Rondine their
own after nearly a century of neglect? Probably not. But an opera that
achieves its effects so lazily and so blatantly hardly presents a
challenge to either of them.
The gifted Miss Gheorghiu wears Puccini's music as she does Franca
Squarciapino's 1920s costumes in this picturesque Nicolas Joel staging
(sets: Ezio Frigerio, with a little help from Gustav Klimt). She
positively ladles on the portamento, melting all hearts with "Doretta's
Dream". Make no mistake: this is a great voice which knows how to place
the money notes so's no one will ever feel short-changed by them. The
technique is absolutely secure, the execution effortless, the sound
So why the niggling feeling that this is as good as it gets? Time will
tell, of course, in more demanding roles than Magda de Civry, the kept
woman with a guilty conscience. But my feeling is that Gheorghiu will
need to stretch herself more artistically if her singing - beautiful,
even thrilling, though it is - is to say something lasting and
meaningful. We're not yet seeing behind her eyes.
Her Ruggero (in every sense), Roberto Alagna, would have benefited from
borrowing a little of his wife's portamento to loosen up and lend some
enticement to his phrasing. It was notably stiff in his opening aria
"Parigi!". I wish, too, he'd find more opportunity for persuasive piano
singing. The little half-shades that mean so much. Even so, no one could
deny he gave value for money.
The evening was all about value for money. Even the opera was about
value for money. Character surfaced fleetingly in the double act of
Lisette (Cinzia Forte) and Prunier - an elegant performance from Charles
Workman, whose singing came close to upstaging Alagna on points of
style. But any semblance of truth was to be found only in the lovers'
prolonged kiss in Act II. Suddenly, we felt we should leave them to it.
Whose idea was this?
Anthony Holden, The Observer, 12 May 2002
Gheorghiu and Alagna are wonderful but wasted on Puccini's flimsiest
In the week that Sir Thomas Allen declared ours 'a civilisation in rapid
decline', its cultural standards 'hijacked' by 'sugar-coated
programming', I have been scouring the country for evidence to the
contrary. The news from the front may be mixed; but it was only during
the long motorway interludes, flipping between Radio 3 and Classic FM,
that I was repeatedly, nay interminably, reminded that the great
baritone knows whereof he speaks.
At least Covent Garden has yet to cast Charlotte Church as a Puccini
heroine. But would it really have staged La Rondine except as a vehicle
for opera's modish dynamic duo, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna? The
slightest of Puccini's mature works, it is thus the least performed, and
this fulsome attempt to dress it up as grand opera merely offers more
sugar-coated evidence why.
No amount of money lavished on elaborate Art Nouveau sets and preening
period costumes can disguise the paucity of Puccini's paper-thin
material. In fact, a production as extravagant yet lifeless as Nicholas
Joel's serves only to re-emphasise the inadequacy of the piece it seeks
to elevate, leaving a grievous sense of waste about all that musical
For the stars around whom this folly is built certainly don't
disappoint. Gheorghiu's glorious voice has never sounded richer or more
confident; from a ravishing 'Chi il bel sogno' to the heartbreaking
final note on which Magda renounces her love, she bears eloquent witness
that no amount of commercial packaging can compromise her standards. If
Alagna has to play second fiddle to his glamorous wife, for all his own
good looks and robust voice, it is more Puccini's fault than his; the
character of Ruggero is so insubstantially drawn that it's amazing he
even half-persuades us Magda would drop everything for him.
In hedonistic Paris, where the central table in a throbbing nightclub
miraculously empties for them (and is wiped clean at least thrice by
singing waiters while they're off dancing), the doomed lovers rather
resembled the young Queen Mother and her beloved Bertie. By the
Traviatian end on the Riviera, they were looking uncannily like Edward
and Mrs Simpson, while facing much the same dilemma. No one living in
such designer opulence can convincingly plead poverty.
Gianluigi Gelmetti caressed more than Puccini's due from orchestra and
soloists, with Charles Workman and Cinzia Forte milking unlikely charm
from the lop-sided Prunier-Lisette subplot. If only the Bow Street
bureaucracy had talked its superstars into a stage version of their new
film of Tosca, spending even half the budget they lavished on this pap.
Same composer, different ball game.