“La Rondine is Puccini’s most eclectic sort-of masterpiece,” said Martin Bernheimer in the Financial Times. Written late in the revered composer’s career, it was an attempt to suffuse his dramatic, musically rich style with the lighter comic elements typical of a Viennese operetta. He wasn’t entirely successful. The work often “vacillates shamelessly yet elegantly between artificially sweetened verismo and sentimental kitsch.” The Met hasn’t staged a production of La Rondine since 1936. But this new production, by Nicolas Joël, proves that, “if performed with taste and style, it can be engrossing.” Especially when it features the captivating talents of real-life husband-and-wife singing duo Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu.
Gheorghiu and Alagna “have always been fine artists as well as stars,” said David Patrick Stearns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. As the young Parisian courtesan Magda, who abandons her relationship with a wealthy older man to pursue the affections of the ardent young Ruggero, Gheorghiu is by turns seductive and sympathetic. Alagna is dashing as Ruggero, but what’s fascinating is watching them together. “They know and anticipate each other’s moves effortlessly.” When they kiss, it’s like watching Bogey and Bacall. Their “midweight voices” aren’t really suited to theaters of the Met’s enormous size, but they do their best to compensate. Alagna summons a much warmer tenor than he has displayed in recent seasons, while Gheorghiu succeeds through sheer “communicative concentration.”
The knock against this work is that its libretto is loaded with an “excess of Italianate emotion,” said Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. Yet Puccini’s score itself is brilliant, marked by “subtle modernistic touches,” which conductor Marco Armiliato captures beautifully. For reasons that aren’t clear, director Joël has updated the context from the mid-19th-century to the dawn of the Jazz Age. But at least it’s an excuse for colorful art deco sets, by Ezio Frigerio, that contribute to the production’s charm. Yet let’s not kid ourselves—the “expressive performances” of Gheorghiu and Alagna are the real reasons not to miss this La Rondine.
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