“La Rondine” is Puccini’s three-legged puppy, and lovable for all that. The L.A. Opera’s treatment of the work, its first-ever try, stops just short of decapitation.
With “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly” firmly entrenched in worldwide repertory, Puccini was ready to seek new horizons, and this work from 1914 was his fling at creating something light-textured and jolly, somewhat along the lines of Viennese operetta. He got a bittersweet romantic text about love and love-games in the Gay Paree of, say, “La Traviata,” tinkered with it a bit, ended up not completely satisfied, but produced it anyway to some acclaim.
None of this, however, justifies the wholesale rewrite job inflicted upon the score by Marta, wife and brood-mom to the company’s incoming Domingo hegemony.
Did outgoing honcho Peter Hemmings ever try to conduct opera in Los Angeles? Did Jane Hemmings entertain notions of directing, or of rewriting the classics? In a statement accompanying the confused eyesore of her staging, Domingo concocts a tattered defense of her tamperings: She was troubled by the weak ending, she rummaged around at Puccini’s publishers for scraps that would flesh out the weaknesses. (Actually, what she found was a Puccini revision that he himself had nixed, which has the rejected Magda not strolling toward the next lover but instead walking out to sea, Joan Crawford-style.)
Not exactly a renowned Puccini musicologist, (in fact only a stage professional since 1991) Domingo’s credentials for such messing-around were, let’s say, on the slim side. The production, developed at the bush-league Bonn opera and then slid through the Domingo dynasty via the Washington Opera (incurring critical wrath there), is gaudy and gimmick-ridden, with a second-act nightclub set resembling a Coney Island carousel.
Tenor Marcus Haddock is the loud and out-of-tune young lover; soprano Carol Vaness continues her struggles to pass as an Italian romantic heroine despite a voice turning ever harder and more gritty. First-time conductor Emmanuel Villaum’s gyrations, great fun to watch, seemed to keep things moving — although toward what was anyone’s guess.
Is this the fate of opera under the Domingo dynasty? A mom-and-pop operation with mom scissoring new happy endings onto the classics and aging pop transposing the high notes downward and doing a little baton-waving on the side? This “Rondine” affords more than just a lousy night at the opera; the portents are far scarier.