Leading Man

As he prepared to star as Ruggero in La Rondine—in a production that marked the work’s first Met performances in more than 70 years—tenor Roberto Alagna spoke to the Met’s Philipp Brieler about starring in Puccini’s underappreciated gem.

You have a strong affinity for La Rondine. What is it that you love about this piece?
First, the music. Second, I think it’s just not fair to have such a beautiful opera by Puccini not be performed in the greatest opera houses in the world. He wrote La Rondine when he was a very well known composer, just a few years after La Fanciulla del West and just before Il Trittico. And I think the music is very, very powerful. In Fanciulla, Puccini tried something new in the orchestration, and he continued that with La Rondine and Il Trittico. You can hear it in some pieces, for example, [sings] “Anche l’albergatore ha la faccia un po’ scura”—that’s Gianni Schicchi. And a little later you have Turandot, [sings] “No! Non lasciarmi solo!” And there are a lot of things from Fanciulla del WestLa Rondine is a wonderful opera. I think maybe if the press at the time had criticized it in a better way, today we would be able to hear it everywhere in the world.

Hopefully, soon we will!
You know, it’s strange because I see the success here with the audience after the concertato, the big ensemble [in the second act]. It reminds me of the ensemble in La Bohème at the Café Momus. It’s the same feeling, and I think the audience receives the same emotion. You can tell by the applause, they’re very, very happy. I’m sure La Rondine will be seen as a masterpiece in the future.

La Rondine was first conceived as an operetta. Do you think this label, which is still dogging it, is one of the reasons the opera was not a great success?
I think the only reason some people still think of La Rondine as an operetta is that it was written for Vienna. The story is a little bit different—nobody dies at the end. I think Puccini did it in his own way, he composed something in between, something new for the time. You know, this was when cinema became popular. I think Puccini was ahead of the epoch. He thought of everything like a movie, like the soundtrack for a movie.

In the first act, Ruggero has an additional aria that you sing in the Met production. What’s the story about that?
This aria was never done. In fact, I was the first to record it. But it’s beautiful, and it helps us understand the character of Ruggero. He wants to go to Paris to have fun. [In the aria] he says that in this city, everything is possible. He comes from Provence, but for him Paris is like America for people today. So it’s an important aria. It’s quite difficult because you have just one phrase, but it’s beautiful. Puccini wrote it for the revised version. In fact, it’s a melody that he composed as a song with piano, called “Morire?” He changed the words and put it in the opera.

The story of La Rondine is reminiscent of other operas, La Bohème and La Traviata in particular. Do these similarities influence your interpretation?

No, not at all, because it’s another story. It’s a very French story. Magda is the principal character, and you find this kind of girl, or grisette, in French literature all the time. They were protected by rich men in the high society. It’s very interesting to see, [in La Rondine] everybody says, “Ruggero is very naive and not interesting.” I think this guy is interesting! At the beginning, Lisette says he’s shy. But I’m not sure he’s so shy. Because she says, “We sent him away,” but he returns seven times. He knows what he wants. And Magda sees that. And when he leaves to go to the café, she thinks, “Oh, I want to go there, I would like to try because this guy is very attractive.” I think Ruggero has something charismatic. But there’s also something’s very strange about him. Because at the end, he knows there’s something wrong with Madga, but he never asks about her past. Why? Because I’m sure he’s thinking, “Okay, this girl, she’s like other girls, she was a grisette. She had a protector and everything.” I think she’s a little bit older than he is, and she has a past. And he says, “I don’t want to know.” He never asks about it. And when she tells him, “I can’t marry you,” he says, “I don’t want to know. It doesn’t matter, I want you.” Only after that, at the last moment, he understands it’s impossible because he can’t give her the same life she had before. He’s not poor, he’s a normal guy, but he has not enough to give her. And he accepts it. The real victim is Ruggero in this story.