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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Opera Review: The Easy Life in Paris

La Rondine returns to the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She loves...lamp? Kristine Opolais is Magda in the Met's La Rondine.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
Composed during World War I and premiered in 1917, Puccini's La Rondine ("The Swallow") has always struggled to find its perch in the repertory. Perhaps it's the work's cheerful appropriation of waltzes from both Strausses (German and Austrian) to serve an Italian libretto. The glittering Paris backdrop, inhabited by rich, cynical bourgeois is an obverse to the pain of La Bohème. Finally, the libretto, ignores operatic conventions of murder and revenge for an ordinary tragedy; it's La traviata without death.

Monday night's performance at the Metropolitan Opera showed that Rondine is a noble work, full of lush, hummable melodies, genuine comic warmth and jarring human drama in the final act. Ion Marin led a pointed, detailed performance that brought out the high points in this short but intensely packed score, the bright energy of the opening, the waltz rhythms in the second act and the light, delicate orchestration that accompanies the tragic denouement.

As Magda (the migrating "swallow" of the opera's title) Kristine Opolais displayed tremendous potential in a role that marks her house debut. The aristocratic Latvian soprano has a smallish instrument, wielded needle-like to create a sympathetic portrait of the courtesan who has to choose between true love with the country-born Ruggero (Giuseppe Filianoti) and the easy life in Paris as a courtesan. (She picks the latter.) Ms Opolais supplanted her instrument with her acting. In Act III, she made the audience realize that Magda's decision, while heartbreaking, was essentially the correct one.

Ruggero may be a naive sort, but this a complicated character who has almost none of the characteristics of the conventional operatic lead. He is not heroic. Nor is he vengeful--he's sort of Don José without the hot temper or sharp knife. Mr. Filianoti sang this role at the Met in 2009. Here, made up here to resemble a young Puccini, he acted well but had two unfortunate cracks above the stave: one of them at the start of "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso" where the voice just vanished.

Fortunately, the scenes between Ruggero and Magda made up for these deficiencies, especially the long duet that takes up most of the second act and is interrupted by that famous Quartet. Their final, touching scene as they walk out of a closed Paris cafe ended with beautiful high notes that hung, hauntingly in the air and stayed in the ear all through intermission. In the searing final scene, the singers managed a convincing portrayal of a double heartbreak, accompanied by solemn, funereal chimes from the orchestra pit marking the death of their relationship.

Marius Brenciu returned in the role of Prunier, the comic poet who brings the lovers together. He displayed good comic timing and a sweet, plush tenor. Anna Christy shone in the soubrette role of Lisette, Magda's maid with ambitions for the operatic stage. The duo brightened the texture of the opera whenever they appeared, their combative flirting serves as the comic counterpoint to the serious story of Magda and Ruggero. In the Act II quartet (the best known number from this score) the four voices blended smoothly in a sweet cocktail of sound.

Nicholas Joëll's handsome production (premiered in 2008 for the "love couple" Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna) updates Rondine to the Roaring Twenties, moving the action beyond the date of the opera's composition and premiere. Ezio Frigerio's Art Deco sets are often more compelling to look at than the singers themselves, with stunning riffs on the artistry of Tiffany and Klimt. With its rich visuals, addictive tunes and talented young cast, this long-neglected opera is one of the jewels of the Peter Gelb years, and one of the better recent productions at the Met.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.