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Music: Puccini’s Swallow Soars

5 minute read
Michael Walsh

Imagine that a new work by Giacomo Puccini had been discovered. Opera houses the world over would fight for the rights to the first performance. The best singers would scramble to create the roles. Audiences would line up eagerly. It would be a sensation.

Surprise, such a work exists. Except this Puccini opera is not newly discovered, it is being rediscovered. After years of unwarranted neglect, La Rondine (The Swallow) may be finding a perch in the major opera houses. La Rondine (pronounced Ron-dee-nay) is not yet a repertory staple. But in 1984 the New York City Opera staged a bubbly version that revealed the many charms of the seductive score. Now in Chicago, the renascent Lyric Opera is proving that treated with respect, the little bird can soar.

Conceived in 1913 as a Viennese operetta but developed at Puccini’s insistence into a more operatic work, La Rondine has never been considered the equal of such tearjerkers as La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. Its resemblances to both Bohème and Verdi’s La Traviata are held against it, as are its less serious origins. “It has proved the weakest of Puccini’s works, uneasily hovering between opera and operetta and devoid of striking lyrical melody,” wrote Puccini Scholar Mosco Carner in a typical critical assessment.

At first the opera does appear to be something of a rewrite. The story certainly recalls La Traviata: Parisian Courtesan Magda meets innocent Country Boy Ruggero, loves him and then, out of concern for his family’s honor, leaves him. And as in La Bohème, there is a joyous café scene and a secondary pair of quarrelsome lovers. Yet the feel of La Rondine is very different, for Magda is a more worldly-wise heroine than either Violetta or Mimi. Her affair with Ruggero is a self-deluding attempt to recapture a lost moment from her youth, and in the last act, she realizes she has been acting out a fantasy, not conducting a love affair. The opera comes to a close with her wistful sigh floating high above the orchestra. Despite its frivolous trappings, La Rondine has a core of cynicism and bears about as much relation to Lehar as Ravel’s fierce La Valse does to the waltzes of Johann Strauss.

The score is the work of a master. The irresistible Doretta’s Dream, the opera’s most famous aria, is sung first by the poet Prunier, a sadder, wiser Rodolfo, whose prominence at the opera’s beginning sets the tone for what is to come. The gradual transformation of the lovers’ duet into a full-blown chorus in the second act is a magical lyric moment. There is even wit: a sly quote from Richard Strauss’s Salome when Prunier describes his ideal woman, and a love duet that deliberately recalls the end of the first act of La Bohème. The melodies are supple and strongly defined, and there is none of the manipulative abuse of the heroine that coarsens, say, Butterfly.

Aside from a somewhat shaky performance from Rumanian-born Soprano Ileana Cotrubas, who sings Magda, the Lyric’s handsome, glittering production is cast with young Americans. Originally presented in 1981 at Pisa’s Teatro Comunale G. Verdi, it is directed by Giulio Chazalettes, who might have made more of Rondine’s disillusioned subtext and in so doing brought out its richer texture. But as performers gradually realize the opera’s possibilities, harder-edged interpretations will no doubt follow.

That the Lyric Opera should take part in Rondine’s restoration comes as no surprise. Founded in 1954, the company has always been a prime exponent of Italian opera in the U.S., a kind of La Scala West. Under Carol Fox, its late founder and general manager, Maria Callas made her American debut in a sizzling Norma, and the Lyric became home to such 1950s and ’60s legends as Soprano Renata Tebaldi, Tenor Giuseppe di Stefano and Baritone Tito Gobbi. By 1980, though, economic troubles had put the company $300,000 in the red, and Fox was forced to resign.

Today, under Ardis Krainik, 56, a former mezzo who was once Fox’s secretary, the company is again robust. The deficits are gone, the budget has risen from $9.1 million four seasons ago to $14.8 million this year, and the number of productions will increase from eight to nine next year. Ticket sales have run at 92% of the opera house’s 3,520-seat capacity. Quality is high too: this season, Bellini’s bel canto I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Soprano Cecilia Gasdia and Mezzo Tatiana Troyanos was an unexpected smash hit, and the Lyric’s tradition of presenting operatic superstars continued with Joan Sutherland in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Krainik’s secret is “constant vigilance.” She pares each opera’s budget line by line, until expenses are balanced by box-office receipts and fund raising. This may seem like mere common sense, but in opera it is a radical approach. Of necessity, she chooses the repertoire carefully and conservatively, this season balancing ham-and-eggers like Butterfly and Traviata with Otello and Die Meistersinger, the lone German entry. “What I’ve learned,” says Krainik, “is that you can have all the art you want if you’ve got the money.”

The Lyric is setting an example for companies all over America. And not just fiscal: the Metropolitan Opera, for example, has not performed La Rondine since 1936. “It’s love that generates all this,” says Krainik, taking in her opera company, the Chicago River and the Lake Michigan shore with one expansive gesture. “We’re here to put on beautiful music.” And so they do. –By Michael Walsh

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