Strong casting makes 'La rondine' soar Review: Marta Domingo stages a well-spliced Puccini with the Washington Opera.

March 03, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's easy to understand why Puccini's "La rondine" ("The Swallow") is the least performed of all the composer's mature operas.

It results from one of the strangest episodes in Puccini's career: a commission calling for him to write a Viennese operetta -- a seemingly impossible task for a composer with a predilection for tragic subjects. As soon as the libretto arrived, he rejected it, saying that he could not write what an operetta needs: isolated numbers with spoken dialogue interspersed. Then he decided to write what he called a "comic opera, like [Strauss'] 'Rosenkavalier' except more amusing and more organic."

But when a new comic libretto turned up from Vienna, Puccini had it translated into Italian and then had it revised into a bittersweet text verging upon the tragic.

"La Rondine" tells the story of a courtesan, Magda (the "swallow" of the title), who abandons the wealthy banker Rambaldo who keeps her when she falls in love with the innocent and idealistic Ruggero. And the libretto -- which betrays signs of its origin as an operetta -- bears some of the blame for "La rondine's" neglect. Some scenes, in what is a relatively short opera, should have been pruned. The most inappropriate is a comic interlude between the secondary couple -- the poet, Prunier, and Magda's maid, Lisette -- that comes just as our interest in the main couple is at its most intense.

Having said all that, let me hasten to add that "La rondine" is still a masterpiece. The strongest possible case for that judgment is the splendid new production that opened Friday at the $l Washington Opera.

Instead of using the standard version of the opera (Puccini's first), this production, conceived and directed by Marta Domingo (the wife of Washington Opera artistic director Placido Domingo), uses material from all three versions and even changes Puccini's bittersweet ending to a decidedly tragic one. Her editorial decisions, emendations and additions may not make the opera more coherent, but they certainly convey the composer's intentions.

While "La rondine" contains a fair share of the so called "pezzi forti" (what Puccini liked to call his "big tunes"), it's perhaps the composer's most subtle opera. "La rondine" has an intimacy that finds time for lively dance measures and some almost unbearably lovely solos and duets -- such as Ruggero's and Magda's delicate exchange in Act II ("Perche mai cercate di saper"), which contains more than a hint of American musicals, such as "Carousel."

That Marta Domingo succeeded in achieving these qualities so brilliantly is a consequence of one of the best casts ever assembled for a Washington Opera production.

Its centerpiece and strongest asset is Ainhoa Arteta's Magda. The role's introspective wistfulness clearly suits this young Spanish soprano's interpretive sympathies. She inhabited the character thoroughly, making her come alive without histrionics. She inflected her lines intelligently, and her wide dynamic range, which always suggested power in reserve, made magic in each of her big moments.

She was partnered superbly by Marcus Haddock as Ruggero, who shaped his solo moments with a caressing touch and whose powerful voice never failed to provide golden tone.

Despite a moment or two of unsteadiness and uncertain intonation, the singing of Richard Troxell, a lyric tenor who usually undertakes starring roles, turned the poet, Prunier, into a major character. Casting another leading singer turned out just as well for Lisette: Albanian soprano Inva Mula's youthful sound and pert delivery were perfect for the role.

William Parcher was a sonorous and capable Rambaldo, and the rest of the cast maintained the polished vocal standard, with especially nice work from soprano Angela Turner Wilson (Yvette) and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Segar (Bianca).

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume maintained an easy flow through the many tricky tempo transitions and generally supported his singers well while allowing much of the orchestra detail to shine. The brilliant belle epoque sets and costumes were by Michael Scott, and the evocative lighting was provided by Joan Sullivan.

'La rondine'

What: Washington Opera

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 11 and 17; 2 p.m. March 15 and 21; 7 p.m. March 21 and 23

Tickets: $36-$230

Call: 800-87-OPERA

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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