Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
Our inveterate Met-goers, Elizabeth Frayer and Shawn E. Milnes, come away from a show with many empty rows and more questions than answers. Read them here.
I’ve done this production, and don’t feel the café scene was overtly sexed-up. The (late-) Twenties were fairly libertarian but Nicolas Joel is too conservative to put in anything to offend even a prudish East Coaster. Let’s not forget that Womens’ Lib is a very recent concept – we only have to look at when women got the vote in mainland Europe to see that – and the fact that, until very recently, vote or no vote, married women still needed their husbands’ authorisation to have a seperate bank account (I’m talking about France, here, which is also where La Rondine is set). Set in the 19th or 20th century, a woman conscious of her past was not going to be easily coaxed out of her social paranoia, just as Violetta ultimately caved in to Germont and accepted to not fight for Alfredo. It’s often difficult for us these days to appreciate just how limited the average woman’s possibilties were in those days, which makes people like Georges Sand et al so impressive.
My sense is that the comment by La Cieca responding to Ms. Frayer’s question is right on point. I think it is clear that Magda loves Ruggero, and that, as she states in Act I, she would choose love over money and a comfortable lifestyle. Given the dilemma that she finds herself in with the truth of her past being revealed and the shame it would engender with Ruggero’s family, and the expectations articulated in his mother’s letter, she is expressing her love in the only honorable way she feels she can- i.e. by releasing him from marrying her. So in the end maybe it is a type of decision one might find in a Corneille play that transcends the sex. And, what do you know, even women’s lib is implicated here, in that it is Magda that has made the final decision (after Ruggero’s mother has set the parameters).
So, in the end it is Mama over Magda, with the poor sap left with no chance to decide either way. If had been a mensch he would have put her (Magda, not Mama) over his shoulder and eloped (though not to Sweden). Well, at least he ends up with someone to cook for him and do his laundry.
As for what the MET thinks, which is different, and certainly more sophisticated and nuanced than the above untutored and wiseacre comment, here is a partial reprint of the MET’s program note by Tom May. (I hope I (and you) don’t get bagged under some treaty or other for inadvertently (or not inadvertently) violating the copyright laws, since we are finding more and more that “mens rea” is stands for less and less in the today’s American legal system.)
You would hardly think that Giacomo Puccini, of all the great opera composers, needs a recognition booster. Yet the programming of opera companies around the world for the 150th anniversary of his birth—which was celebrated on December 22, 2008—brought reminders that there was in fact fresh room for discovery, above all when the topic is La Rondine.
Puccini had already attained towering international fame by the time he created La Rondine, but the opera failed to catch on and fell into semi-obscurity within a few decades. With this production by Nicolas Joël, La Rondine returned to the Met for the first time since Lucrezia Bori chose to play “the swallow” of the title for her career swan song in 1936. It was the legendary Spanish soprano (and reputed descendent of the notorious Borgia clan) who had introduced the role to the Met stage in 1928 during the opera’s U.S. premiere, which occurred four years after Puccini’s death. Audiences in London had to wait until 1974 for the first professional staging there.
La Rondine is not only the most neglected opera of Puccini’s maturity; it’s also the most misunderstood. The confusion begins with the issue of genre. Even today, casual references to La Rondine as an “operetta” abound, mistaking the gentle touch that is its signature for a frothy attempt at what would have been for Puccini the equivalent of “crossover.” In fact, the journey toward La Rondine did involve a stop in the world of Viennese operetta, but that was not Puccini’s final destination.
A long search for a new project followed completion of La Fanciulla del West (which had its world premiere at the Met in 1910). Literature or contemporary theater were the sources that typically grabbed Puccini’s attention as potential for operatic treatment. But for several years after Fanciulla, the composer flitted restlessly over a motley assortment of possibilities. These ranged from the novel Lorna Doone to Oscar Wilde’s unfinished A Florentine Tragedy (later turned into an opera by Alexander Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s teacher) and even a bizarrely imagistic, decadent dramatization of the Children’s Crusade by the controversial poet Gabriele d’Annunzio.
During his search, Puccini did settle on a gritty, tragic new play that he would eventually transform into Il Tabarro, the first panel of Il Trittico. At the same time, however, he began to express an interest in lighter fare: “I have a desire to laugh and to make other people laugh,” he wrote to one of his confidantes. While he was in Vienna in 1913 for the local premiere of Fanciulla, an unlikely opportunity arrived in the form of an invitation by the director of one of the city’s leading theaters for operetta, a genre then in its “silver age” as represented by the enormously popular works of Franz Lehár. The princely sum attached to the commission may have made it an undertaking Puccini couldn’t refuse, but that hardly justifies the dismissively holier-than-thou insinuations by some critics that his attraction to the new project was merely financial.
Indeed, the composer immediately expressed frustration with the notion of writing a conventional operetta—separated into numbers and with spoken
dialogue—when he received the first sketch proposed by Alfred Maria Willner, a librettist for Lehár. Puccini complained about “the usual slipshod, banal operetta” with its lack of character study and “dramatic interest” and, in an often-quoted statement, concluded that “an operetta is something I shall never do; a comic opera, yes, see Rosenkavalier, only more entertaining and more organic.” Willner paired up with a colleague, Heinz Reichert, to concoct another scenario drawing on patterns familiar from both grand opera and operetta and revolving around the figure of a beautiful courtesan who attempts to take flight from her gilded cage to pursue romantic bliss.
For his part, Puccini turned to a new collaborator, Giuseppe Adami—a generation younger than the composer—who would also furnish the librettos for Il Tabarro and Turandot. Adami not only translated the German libretto but reshaped and adapted significant details in response to Puccini’s demands. Composition stretched over two years, while Puccini worked simultaneously on Il Tabarro. The third act in particular—by consensus the opera’s most problematic—proved to be a stumbling block.
Meanwhile, the First World War introduced new complications, with Italy entering the conflict as part of the alliance against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. La Rondine’s premiere was given in neutral territory on March 27, 1917, at the Grand Théâtre in Monte Carlo (whose visionary director, Raoul Gunsbourg, was the first to stage La Damnation de Faust as an opera). Puccini remained unsatisfied and produced two more rewrites; the pivotal differences involved the opera’s ending. The first of these was geared toward the belated Viennese premiere in 1920. The second introduced a melodramatic, verismo denouement in which Magda, instead of choosing to leave Ruggero, is angrily abandoned by her lover. But Puccini’s original intuitions for the ending, as in the standard version used in the Met’s production, are arguably far more satisfying—certainly for 21st-century audiences. As Michele Girardi observes in his excellent study, Puccini: His International Art, “Magda is a modern woman who does not want the same end as other Puccini heroines, from whom she is very different.”
It was in fact La Rondine’s differences from Puccini’s other work—above all its femininity—that made earlier audiences hesitant. “The element of tragedy,” wrote Time magazine of the original Met production in 1928, “is missing from the soft, curving arias and duets.” Yet from our perspective, La Rondine emerges as a fascinating hybrid, both in its emotional negotiations and in its musical palette. Commentators like to refer to the scenario as a kind of tepid rewrite of La Traviata, but it’s precisely the tension between the idealized love of romantic opera and a more tempered, realistic view that generates Puccini’s unique brand of sophisticated melancholy in La Rondine. Thus even the echoes of La Bohème (also frequently noted, with the second act as a conflation of Mimì and Rodolfo’s love duet and the bustling Café Momus) acquire a tone of gently ironic self-parody—as if the composer is looking back on the irretrievable illusions of his own artistic past.
The opera’s framing devices subtly shape this fundamental tension. Puccini opens with a tone of worldly, frivolous conversation. But the very song with which the poet Prunier (in part a lampooning of the eccentric d’Annunzio) sets out mockingly to illustrate the power of “sentimental love” soon becomes its vehicle. Just as swiftly as the score slips from a chattily prosaic mood into dreamy rhapsody, Magda is drawn into her memory of unfulfilled love.
Much of La Rondine is about the role-playing Magda so eagerly undertakes to enjoy a temporary escape from the realistic compromises of her life with the wealthy (and extraordinarily gentlemanly) sugar daddy Rambaldo. She does this through an idyllic but ultimately unsustainable vision of romantic love, recalled in Act I and then dreamily acted out in the rest of the opera until she snaps out of the illusion in Act III. Magda completes Prunier’s song and then sets out to complete the love story from which she fled in her youth. La Rondine’s bittersweet irony is that she must flee again: only in its incompleteness—Magda’s memory of the happiness she might have had with Ruggero—can the story remain vital. Even the sigh-like motif we hear within the opera’s first minute, associated with Magda’s elusive vision of love, has a fragmentary character, like the hint of a waltz wafted on the breeze.
Dance elements—particularly in the sequences of Act II—flavor much of the score, although La Rondine’s single loveliest melody (the basis of the quartet ensemble at the Bullier dance hall) began as a simple lullaby the composer wrote to words of his nephew. But along with the warmth and directness of his melodic imagination, Puccini gives wide rein to his orchestral imagination. Prickling dissonances announce the entry of the provincial newcomer Ruggero, while the simple pentatonic tune of the singer near the end of Act II is doubled by piccolo to produce an eerie whistling effect. The comic counterpoint of the affair between Lisette and Prunier, so crucial to the third act, includes a brilliantly demented, paranoid depiction of the catcalls and boos left echoing in Lisette’s head after her stage fiasco.
Such details are second nature to Puccini’s musical-theatrical savvy. Much of the music in Act III is recycled from earlier in the opera, as if to emphasize that the lovers are living on borrowed time, their love an égoisme à deux in a kind of suspended animation. And in the tolling bells, as Julian Budden remarks, we hear “the death-knell of the lovers’ idyll.” Yet unlike his famous tragic heroines, Puccini provides a soft landing for his swallow: all three acts, quite unusually, end with a muted touch, the last including a delicately floated A-flat from Magda (with perhaps a hint of the Marschallin’s resigned “Ja, ja”). Having specialized in operas about love experienced to the breaking point, in La Rondine Puccini leaves us with its delicate, indelible perfume.
—Thomas May ”
(WARNING: If you are an instrumentalist and read this on your way to or through Berlin, you could find yourself under arrest and assessed 22.3% by the German customs authorities.)
The other question is why so many empty seats. I was at the same performance as Mr. Milnes, by was sitting in the Family Circle. Both sides and the upper half of the Family Circle and a good portion of the Balcony were completely empty. The night before I was at the Met for “Le Comte Ory,” and again, lots of empty seats in the same areas. What gives? I doubt it was due to the cold weather.
Could it be the oldtimers are starting to boycott and the young ‘uns don’t have the interest or the dough? Now if the old men knew what was going to be on display, maybe a few of those Family Circle and Balcony seats would have been taken, though when you get old, your eyesight starts to degenerate, so maybe I’m wrong after all.
Author, novelist, broadcaster, cultural commentator.
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