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Ionarts-at-Large: La Rondine in San Francisco

Our thanks to guest critic Robert R. Reilly for contributing this review of the November 16th performance of La Rondine from San Francisco.

I grow old, but the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco could have opened yesterday for the freshness of its splendor. I had not been there since a production of Boito’s Mephistophele more than ten years ago. How wonderful to find it so beautifully maintained. The stately surroundings seemed to affect the dress code of the audience for Puccini’s La Rondine on November 16th, which was clearly superior to what I have encountered in crowds inhabiting the opera houses on the East Coast. The latter seem to think they are attending their home entertainment centers.

The opera house was full to see opera star Angela Gheorghiu shine in her San Francisco debut. And shine she did. She is gorgeous, has riveting stage presence and, most importantly, a beautiful voice, which she deploys with complete confidence. She leaps within her broad range absolutely effortlessly. One could only wish that the material gave her more chances to do that, but more on this later. She was accompanied by a singularly fine cast, including the superbly passionate Ruggero of Misha Didyk and the lively Lisette of Anna Christy. Everyone was at least good, and there was not a weak link in the acting, which was uniformly fine.

The problem was not with the stars, but with the setting. And I do not mean the production – which was done in an attractive art deco style – I mean the opera. The neglected La Rondine has been resuscitated largely due to Miss Gheorghiu’s efforts, going back to her fine 1997 recording of it on EMI. Does it deserve it?

Yes, and no. The opera fans and Puccini-lovers with whom I attended La Rondine pronounced it “weak Puccini.” That is because they expected to be swept away. However, despite the story of lovers meeting, and lovers parting, La Rondine is curiously uninvovlng – for Puccini. Puccini usually leaves you in tears. I saw only dry eyes.

One reason is the weak plot. Even for an operetta, which is what Puccini thought he was writing, the love-at-first-sight meeting between Magda and Ruggero seems flimsy. Yet everything depends on it being taken seriously; otherwise, the disillusionment that eventually sets in has no dramatic impact.

No doubt, the plot is meant to reveal that being in love with love cannot sustain itself – it leads to nothing and is infertile. As soon a children are mentioned as a possibility, the relationship comes to a crashing close. However, there is not a lot of tension in seeing something that is so transparently an illusion being swept away. La Rondine is the exposure of the unreality of that world, while at the same time being a celebration of it. Thus, its bittersweet feel.

Also, I more than once thought of Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy moments from Hollywood operettas, with the two of them singing their hearts out. Only they had more songs than Magda and Ruggero do here. Even weak plots can be rescued by big moments. Puccini consciously eschewed these, but for the extremely lovely “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” and a few others.

I do not mean to discount the many beauties of this oper(ett)a and the San Francisco production makes as good a case for it as I can imagine. As long as you did not expect Puccini, you would find it very enjoyable.


JRD said...

Fabulous review! Brava!

Lisa Hirsch said...

About the beautifully-maintained War Memorial Opera House: Mr. Reilly may be unaware that the house closed for 18 months in 1996 and 97, for seismic work, modernization of the lighting and mechanical systems, and a general renewal of the interior. The interior looks considerably better than it did when he saw the Boito, presumably in the 1994 revival.

Anonymous said...

i find this opera quite dramatic. partly because, if you read between the lines of the plot, i think magda is infertile because of her past as a courtesan. she could have contracted something. so, she cannot committ to being a wife but only a lover - it's possible she can never bear children. and she doesn't want Ruggerro to suffer because of her mistakes. if you think of that way, it is very tragic and dramatic.