Not seen at the Met since 1936, Puccini’s “La Rondine” makes a welcome return bolstered by the star power of its real-life husband-and-wife leads Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Nicolas Joel’s well-traveled production — it has already been seen in Toulouse, London, and San Francisco — muddles the characters’ motivation with an ill-considered change of era, but Puccini’s genius, as usual, wins out.
The composer’s attempt at a lighter opera, in which nobody suffers much more than a broken heart, did not become a repertory staple until New York City Opera revived it in 1984. That launched the neglected 1917 work on a love affair with audiences around the world, one which continues unabated.
The Met has lagged behind most other major international opera houses in presenting this crowd-pleaser. Brimming with several of Puccini’s most seductive melodies, including the familiar “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” “La Rondine” (The Swallow) is a work that carries more than a whiff of “La Traviata” in its plot.
Magda (Gheorhghiu), a sophisticated mid-19th century Parisian courtesan, flees a relationship with a wealthy older man and throws herself into a passionate romance with an ardent young admirer. She bravely ends this affair as well when she realizes the young man’s family will never accept her due to her former status as a kept woman.
What works in the original Second Empire setting makes little sense in Joel’s production (staged here by Stephen Barlow), which transposes the action to Puccini’s later years. By that point in time, World War I and its societal upheavals had already ushered in the dawn of the Jazz Age, and millionaire scions of old-moneyed families were marrying chorus girls. Magda’s tearful insistence to her lover that “I cannot enter your home…I was not pure when I came to you!” is mighty hard to accept in this updated context.
Nonetheless, the production is a visual feast. Franca Squarciapino’s costumes are dazzling and true to the late-1910s concept — except for the Vegas-showgirl-style slits that go all the way up the sides of Gheorghiu’s Act I dress. Ezio Frigerio’s opulent settings are stunning, though they are more representative of Viennese Secessionism and Louis Comfort Tiffany than anything that could be considered French.
The role of Magda is well-suited to Gheorghiu’s earthily-tinged lyric soprano; she recorded it 13 years ago for EMI and has since made a specialty of it. Why then, does this ferociously stagewise performer seem so ill-at-ease in a production that is already familiar to her?
Her stances and gestures are uncharacteristically awkward and wooden. She is also beset with an unbecoming shoulder-length wig that is totally anachronistic; it looks like a castoff from Barbra Streisand impersonator Steven Brinberg. Fortunately these drawbacks do not impair Gheorghiu’s vocal performance, which remains heartfelt and beautifully phrased.
Alagna is charming as her thwarted lover Ruggero; he should just remember that this is not “Tosca” — he needs to float his climaxes rather than attack them. It’s a pleasure to watch the very real onstage chemistry between these married superstars; during a long kissing sequence in the second act, they go at it like Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious.”
Samuel Ramey represents luxury casting in the smallish role of Magda’s sugar-daddy Rambaldo; he was ill the night of Jan. 3 and was capably replaced by James Courtney. Fast-rising soprano Lisette Oropesa is memorably comic and sings sweetly as Magda’s maid and confidante. She is ably partnered by Romanian Marius Brenciu as the poet Prunier. Brenciu has a strongly-focused lyric tenor and boasts an appealing, naturally elegant stage presence. This role is his Met debut; we will surely be hearing more from him.
Marco Armiliato conducts the sparkling score with great verve, but he needs to hold his musicians down a bit. Far too often, the singers are smothered under the force of his orchestra.