La Rondine, Holland Park, London

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The Independent Culture

Things never go to plan in open-air opera.

Thus it was, with exquisitely bad timing, that a police helicopter chose to pass low over Holland Park as the orchestra struck up, and Prunier the poet's opening line ("In Paris, love is in bloom") had to be read from a surtitle because it couldn't be heard. Thereafter, however, extraneous noises didn't obtrude, and Puccini's La Rondine wove its graceful spell.

This was a late work, created after agonising wrestles over orchestration, and it pointed in a musical direction Puccini did not live to explore further; his "poor little Rondine" was to have a very chequered history. But the surface lightness of its sunny, airy score is deceptive: the soprano who premiered the lead role described it as every bit as challenging as La Traviata. Sometimes dismissed as operetta (it was originally destined for Vienna), La Rondine has none of the appurtenances of tragedy – nobody dies of disease, a dagger or despair – yet it packs a very gritty punch.

Magda, its heroine, is the mistress of a rich Parisian, but falls in love with Ruggero, scion of an aristocratic family; he wants to marry her, but as a morally tainted woman she feels duty-bound to renounce him. And in this elegant production, directed by Tom Hawkes and designed by Peter Rice, sociological truth becomes palpably human. Puccini was all too familiar with socially unacceptable liaisons, and here he lays bare the emotional mechanics of true love and forbidden desire in the demi-monde of 1917 Paris. His regretful worldliness gives rise to music of watercolour delicacy which conductor Peter Selwyn beautifully realises.

If Seá* Ruane's Ruggero – leaning on a stick as a wounded officer on leave – is vocally a trifle stiff, Kate Ladner infuses the role of Magda with a soaring expressiveness. One of the strengths of this production lies in the way their passionate duets are counterpointed by the very different duets between Prunier (tenor Hal Cazalet) and Magda's maid Lisette, who in the live-wire figure of Hye-Youn Lee commands the stage bewitchingly whenever she is in view: this South Korean soprano is definitely a singer to watch.

The show's other strength lies in its evocation of time and place: fin-de-siècle abandon seldom comes across as so seductive.

To 17 July (0300 999 1000)