Opera Holland Park, carrying something of the mantle for staging lesser-known works, revisit La Rondine this season on the opera’s centenary. It’s their third production of the work, eclipsing virtually every other company’s efforts to stage it since its premiere in Monte Carlo in 1917. After an encouraging run, La Rondine fell from favour, not making its UK premiere until the 1960s, and then managing only a smattering of appearances since.
One of Puccini’s later operas, it has – perhaps unfairly – been sidelined in favour of the composer’s more famous works. Admittedly, it lacks any signature arias so characteristic of his crowd-pleasers but it is, in its own right (and highlighted by this production), a thoroughly pleasing evening’s entertainment.
Commissioned during the dusk of the Second Republic, it had rather a reluctant birth, falling both during the vogue of operetta – something Puccini couldn’t abide himself – before struggling through its writing while the world was in the grip of war. It didn’t help that it was the Viennese who’d commissioned it before Italy then entered the conflict – on the other side – which also accounts why it opened in Monte Carlo. Seven years since his last work, three years in the making, and during a period of upheaval both global and personal (with his son involved in the conflict), little wonder it’s fallen from favour, like an afterthought, as if Puccini’s heart wasn’t in it.
But that is to dismiss it too readily. His heart is in it. It’s a captivating tryst of betrayal and deceit in the pursuit of true love, where much of the emotion goes well beyond the usual operatic precepts.
Set in fin-de-siecle Paris, in what must be bohemian Montmartre (such as it deals with poets, courtesans and a deliciously decadent nightclub, Bullier’s), it centres on Magda, our anti-heroine, like a latterday Pretty Woman, now out of her salacious past and hosting cocktail parties at her benefactor Rambaldo’s fancy apartment. Inspired by a take on romance by one of her party guests, the poet Prunier, she revisits her past in Bullier’s, where she meets Ruggero, the son of one of Rambaldo’s friends. Not wishing to give herself or her past life away, she takes on a different identity and finds herself falling for him whereupon – to cut a short story shorter – she elopes with him to the south of France, dismissing Rambaldo and her comfortable bourgeois life in the process, yet still weighed down by the burden of her duplicity.
Musically, La Rondine may lack the crowd-pleasing melodies of its more famous siblings but that doesn’t stop this being engaging, and there is some characteristic Puccini here, with sweeping strings, inventive tempos, weighty choruses and some deft melodic touches, particularly the beautiful, tender duet between Ruggero (with the rich tenor texture of OHP first-timer Matteo Lippi) and Magda at the end of Act II, and again the anguish of theirs that closes the production. Elizabeth Llewellyn gives a stand-out performance as Magda, showing the delicate touches of her range against the power of her top flight displayed through the bigger numbers, making this production worth a visit for her performance alone.
As ever, the company and cast have done a terrific job of bringing La Rondine out of its shell. Director Martin Lloyd-Evans sets it in the 1950s and the contemporary choreography – with jiving dancers in Bullier’s chorus sequences – seemingly juxtapose against the score but give it some real innovation and vitality.
And one of OHP’s touchpoints is always the staging; with limited options given the backdrop of Holland House’s front terrace, anticipating clever production design is always a joy. Here, there’s a great reveal for Bullier’s at the start of Act 2 and, again, deploying the same structure for set in Act 3, turning a Parisian bordello into a Provençal poolside is testament to their continued inventiveness.
It’s the risks that pay off with OHP’s seasons year after year, introducing many an unknown work to an established opera-goer, and giving those of us with an enthusiastic appetite (but little knowledge in the way of the menu) always something new to try, and to be so glad that we did.
La Rondine runs for seven nights in June. For details of performances and to book tickets, and for more information of the other productions this season, visit www.operahollandpark.com.