Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
the eyes and ears are thrilled by this production, but the heart and mind are left somewhat wanting. The fault lies primarily with Giuseppe Adami's libretto. Puccini composed La Rondine as a commission from Vienna's Carltheater to compose a comic opera. However, Adami's libretto, while including comic elements (primarily emanating from two secondary characters), is overall very somber, so the light weight of its theme of frivolous romantic love is at odds with the dramatic burden carried by the two main characters, Magda and Ruggero. This becomes most apparent at the end, as Magda and Ruggero express anguish that is not really earned by the events leading up to it. Puccini himself was troubled by the ending. Following La Rondine's 1917 premiere he revised it twice, trying two different endings, in 1920 and again in 1921. Puccini died in 1924 without stating which ending he preferred. Minnesota Opera uses the original ending, as devised by Adami, as has become the custom.
The opera is set in Paris before the onset of World War I. Magda is a kept woman, living well off the largesse of Rambaldo. At a party at Rambaldo's villa, a poet opines about the "epidemic" of love running rampant through the city, with flights of unbridled romance seizing young men and women. As illustration, he offers the tale of a lovelorn maiden. When his verse falters, Magda steps in to complete the tale in one of Verdi's most rapturous arias, "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta."
Afterwards, apart from the men, Magda confesses to her friends that she is unhappy, even living in comfort, because she has never known true love. Rambaldo is not unkind to her and gives her lavish gifts, but in the end she is like a pet to him. As Magda ponders this alone, Ruggero, a young man whose father is an old friend of Rambaldo, pays a call on the house. The company advises him on how a young man can best enjoy his first taste of Paris. After they all leave, Magda impulsively decides that she wants to have a taste of the passion described by the poet. Disguised in the garments of a working girl, she silently slips out.
Act two opens at the café that had been recommended to Ruggero. He is seated alone, unmoved by the overt flirtation of the women. Magda enters and sees him there, but she is at once overwhelmed by unwelcome advances by men. Finally, she flings herself at Ruggero, claiming he has been waiting to meet her there, thus sending the other men away. Not knowing her, Ruggero is taken by her beauty and, with her simple working girls' dress, her presumed virtue and goodness. They dance and almost at once are in love, egged on through song and dance by the chorus. When Rambaldo arrives, Magda declares her love for Ruggero and her intent to leave Rambaldo.
Act three is set at a seaside hotel to which Magda and Ruggero retreat to bathe in the luxury of their love. Love is their only luxury, for Ruggero's modest wallet has been depleted and panic overtakes him as he wonders how they can go on. It is from this point that La Rondine loses its way. Magda's impulsive bolting out in the night was spurred by a desire to taste romantic passion. She is in love with the idea of being passionately loved, but there is no indication that she is actually in love with Ruggero. It is thus hard to feel any sympathy for her, throwing the ending emotionally out of balance.
Cardenas added a piece to his staging of La Rondine that seems intended to address this. He invented a much older Magda who never speaks, but enters at the start of each scene, takes in the view, then retreats into the shadows, returning only as the act concludes. Before act one, she literally removes sheets draped over the furniture in Rambaldo's villa, as if shaking her memories back to life. During her final appearance, a projection shows us Ruggero's fate, and we see Magda's look of despair over the way her happy adventure turned out. This is a smart idea on Cardenas' part, but without any words to know what Magda has really learned during the passing years, it is too little to have much impact.
Fortunately, the staging, the voices, the design, and especially Puccini's score make us care little about La Rondine's shortcomings. Cardenas is adept at using his casta small ensemble in act one, a stage crowded with the full chorus in act two, and a sparsely filled stage with only five characters in total appearing in act threeto form evocative groupings, making sure everyone is playing out their role at all times, even when they are far from the center of a scene's action. During act two, Heidi Spesard-Noble's choreography provides breathless movement to underscore the elation of love in the air.
The stellar leads are very well matched. Irish soprano Celine Byrne makes her Minnesota debut as Magda. Her crystalline voice fills the capacious Ordway, making a highlight of every piece she sings, with her "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" bringing down the house. Her portrayal of Magda aligns well with the character, demure and closeted at first, giddy with romance as she allows herself those unknown feelings, then clenching back within herself as she realizes she has allowed it all to go too far.
As Ruggero, Leonardo Capalbo is handsome in a boyish way that suits his naiveté and his hold over Magda. He sings beautifully, rapturously in declaring his desire to seal the love he and Magda share as he sings "You are not just a lover, Magda, you are love itself" ("E laggiù non sapevo"). His dissolve into despair when all unravels is impassioned, a scorched boy who flew too high and is burned by the sun.
Two secondary characters, the eloquent poet Prunier and Magda's plucky housemaid Lisette, furnish La Rondine with most of its comedy. As Prunier, Christian Sanders brings a strong, soothing tenor to his verses. He conveys Prunier's sly nature, proffering the poetry of true love, while pursuing something less virtuous. Lisa Marie Rogali is delightful as Lisette, her soprano lilting as she defies the rules of decorum, and her spirited presence captures the audience whenever she is on stage. As for Levi Hernandez, as Rambaldo, the role is so underwritten that there is little chance for us to discern what kind of man he is, or for us to hear Hernandez' powerful voice to full advantage.
Sara Brown's set features a full wall of windows at the rear, with views in accordance with each act: A mist coated Île de la Cité and Notre Dame, seen from Rambaldo's Parisian villa in act one; a starry sky with a vibrant full moon in transit outside the boisterous café in act two; and a burnished beach and blanched sky beyond the hotel room in act three. The ceiling is styled in the beaux arts manner, but its center is gone, not neatly trimmed away, but as if a meteor had crashed through, leaving a jagged rim. Jesse Cogswell's lighting adds to the luster of the settings, especially in creating a gently arriving dawn as the night at the café turns into a new day. Montana Levi Blanco has created fabulous costumes, richly detailed and nuanced to reflect a person within them, from the two leads to every member of the chorus.
It is no doubt foolhardy to complain that the storyline that undergirds an opera is weak, or illogical, or lacking emotional resonanceas many do. The essence of opera is in its music, the feelings and colors whipped into being by the orchestra, and the impassioned voices on stage. In this regard, La Rondine is a great work. Added to that, splendid stage craft and design in Minnesota Opera's production, and you have every reason to cheer "Bravo!" at the final curtain.
La Rondine, through October 14, 2018, by Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $218.00. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Giacomo Puccini; Libretto: Giuseppe Adami; Conductor: Sergio Alapont; Stage Director: Octavio Cardenas; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master: Andrew Whitfield; Scenic Design: Sara Brown; Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Design: Jesse Cogswell; Projections Design: Joshua Higgason; Hair and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Répétiteurs: Mary Box, Allen Perriello, Andrew Sun; English Captions: Christopher Bergen; Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller.
Cast: Danielle Beckvermit (Bianca/Gabriella/off stage voice), Celine Byrne (Magda), Leonardo Capalbo (Ruggero), Christina Christensen (Suzy/Lolette), Nicholas Davis (Périchaud/Rabonnier), Levi Hernandez (Rambaldo), Michelle Liebl (Yvette/Georgette), Stephen Martin (Gobin/Adolfo), Lisa Marie Rogali (Lisette), Christian Sanders (Prunier), Wm. Clay Thompson (Crébillon), Christian Thurston (Major Domo).