For the first time in more than 70 years, Giacomo Puccini’s sumptuous yet tragic love story La Rondine returned the Met stage during the 2008–09 season, in a spirited new production by Nicolas Joël that placed the action in 1920s France. By William Berger
The mature works of Giacomo Puccini, from 1893’s Manon Lescaut to the unfinished Turandot 31 years later, are at the core of the modern opera repertory. Characters like Mimì and Tosca have become household names and are among the best known and most beloved in the history of theater. La Rondine is another work Puccini wrote at the height of his powers, when he was already considered the most popular opera composer in the world. But in comparison with, say, La Bohème, it’s virtually unknown.
La Rondine is a superb, unique, and remarkably modern work, and in recent years, it’s claiming its rightful place among Puccini’s other masterpieces—thanks largely to the championship of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, two artists who have played a major role in the opera’s resurgence.
La Rondine returned to the Met in 2008 for the first time since 1936. Nicolas Joël’s new production, originally staged at London’s Royal Opera House, opened with a gala performance on New Year’s Eve. “I have always been of the opinion that it’s one of the most important works of Puccini,” Gheorghiu says. “I can’t tell you why it’s so rare. For me it isn’t. It was the first opera I ever recorded in a studio. It’s Puccini’s most modern opera.” Joël fittingly placed the action in the composer’s own lifetime. Paris and the French Riviera of the 1920s were brought to life in stunning art-deco sets designed by Ezio Frigerio, with costumes by Franca Squarciapino and lighting designed by Duane Schuler. Marco Armiliato conducted.
Like Gheorghiu, Armiliato feels La Rondine is a gem waiting to be discovered. But, the conductor says, its uniqueness can be a stumbling block for the public. “It is Puccini, but there is no great tragic ending, no death,” he explains. “So how can this be a Puccini opera?” On the other hand, Armiliato points out, “the score is full of modern ideas—pentatonic scales, freely used dissonances, sudden changes of tone. But it is all so easy to listen to, fresh and light. This to me is the proof of Puccini’s genius.”
Blending distinctly 20th-century musical techniques with gorgeous romantic melodies might appeal to audiences today, but for most of the opera’s history it has baffled the public. Audiences could accept, on one level, the advanced musical language of iconoclasts such as Ravel and Stravinsky. Conversely, they would also enjoy the flowing melody of earlier Puccini. But a work that was both contemporary and melodic seemed like a contradiction.
For director Joël, the question of why to bring La Rondine back to the stage is a very simple one. “It’s clearly a masterpiece,” he says without hesitation. Alagna agrees: “There’s a lot of emotion, a wide range of musical atmosphere, and there are very dramatic moments.” So why has it taken so long to return to the repertoire? “I wish I knew!” the tenor laughs. “I don’t understand it.”
In one important respect, La Rondine marks a departure from a formula Puccini had been following up to that point in his career. Unlike his previous successful operas, it’s an original story that is not based on a well-known novel or drama. It tells of a kept Parisian woman, Magda, who leaves her cushy-but-compromised life for an attempt at romantic love with an idealistic and naive young man. She runs away with him to the south of France (the opera’s title refers to “the swallow” who flies south for the winter), only to break off the relationship and return to her previous life at the end of the opera. This failed romance is contrasted with the story of another couple, a considerably more comic pair of lovers who keep the spice in their relationship by maintaining an ironic role-play scenario. In this opera, it seems, deceptive and mercenary relationships last longer than those that appear to be based on “true” love.
Some elements of the story are reminiscent of other operas, especially La Traviata and La Bohème, and Magda bears resemblances to Violetta, Mimì, and Musetta. “Yes, they seem alike,” Gheorghiu says, “but they differ in their way of acting, in the different situations they find themselves in. Every role creates unique challenges.” The story of La Rondine almost seems more suitable for a screenplay than an opera. There are no all-good or all-bad characters in this intriguing serious comedy. Nobody dies; no one is forced into one way of life or another. Instead, the lead characters find themselves in circumstances that challenge them to be as honest as they can. Even Magda’s jilted rich lover reacts to the initial break up with philosophical Parisian sophistication. He merely wishes her luck and expresses his hope that she knows what she is doing. Hardly the sinister, moustache-twirling baritone we find in so many Italian operas—including several by Puccini!
Instead of being easy to categorize, La Rondine is a multifaceted work of art, and many of its charms are as subtle as its characterizations. And while its musical and dramatic structure may have surprised audiences with its blend of tradition and modernism, there were also a number of other factors that worked against the opera entering the repertory. It was originally conceived as an operetta for a Viennese theater. Even though this idea was quickly abandoned, the label dogged the work for long afterwards, earning either contempt from “serious” musical arbiters or disappointing those who expected a frothy entertainment. “The most Viennese aspect of the opera is not that it’s like an operetta,” Joël explains, “but that it’s nuanced and dramatically mature, like a story by [Austrian writer] Arthur Schnitzler. An English-speaking audience might think of the serio-comedies of Noël Coward,” he adds, “as seen through Puccini’s depressive psyche.”
World politics interfered with La Rondine’s road to the stage as well. Italy and Austria were at war by 1915. Producing the opera in Vienna became impossible, and the premiere was given in neutral Monte Carlo in 1917. Its success did not resonate beyond the first few performances—the world had other concerns, and Puccini seemed out of touch with the times. Conductor Arturo Toscanini, whose austere patriotism included conducting morale-boosting bands under direct gunfire at the front, felt that Puccini’s urge to honor a Viennese contract was something close to treason, and said so. La Rondine may have been a lovable work, but there was no one around inclined to love it.
But even the end of the war did not spell the beginning of La Rondine’s triumph. Puccini grew nervous about the work and made changes for the long-awaited Vienna premiere in 1920. The production was not the success he had hoped for. Other theaters found it too risky a venture during those uncertain times—and why bother anyway, when one could put on La Bohème with roughly the same cast and be guaranteed a sold-out house? La Rondine’s best shot at winning over the public came in 1928, at the Met. The legendary Joseph Urban designed a sumptuous production starring Lucrezia Bori and Beniamino Gigli, which was received warmly if not rapturously. After the 1929 stock market crash, however, La Rondine again fell between the cracks—too melodic and Puccinian to justify its inclusion in the repertory as a novelty or a daring new work, too unusual and form-defiant to replace the familiar Puccini hits. After three performances that served as Bori’s farewell in 1936, the opera disappeared from the Met repertory.
Through the end of his life, Puccini never lost faith in this remarkable work. “In the future,” he said, “they will see what a jewel it is.” The future, it seems, has finally arrived.
William Berger is a Met Radio Writer and Producer.