'La Rondine': Swallow set to make the summer

A neglected Puccini opera merits its revival, says Nick Kimberley
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The Independent Culture

In the play-safe world of opera, Puccini represents good box office, and no opera house survives without its Tosca,Butterfly, Bohème. Why, then, is La Rondine (The Swallow), written after those three repertoire standbys, only now receiving its first Covent Garden performance, 85 years after its premiere?

In the play-safe world of opera, Puccini represents good box office, and no opera house survives without its Tosca,Butterfly, Bohème. Why, then, is La Rondine (The Swallow), written after those three repertoire standbys, only now receiving its first Covent Garden performance, 85 years after its premiere?

In 1913, when the composer was at the height of his popularity, the Karltheater in Vienna commissioned him to write an operetta in the Viennese style. Puccini, however, insisted on writing a proper opera: none of operetta's spoken-dialogue-between-the sung-bits for him.

When war broke out, a Viennese premiere became impossible, and the first performance of La Rondine was given in Monte Carlo in 1917 to a lukewarm reception. This wasn't an operetta, nor was it the head-on emotional collision that followers demanded, and while certain plot details resembled those of La Bohème ,the atmosphere was quite different. La Rondine went down in history as Puccini's failed operetta.

That is not, however, the view of Nicolas Joël, the French director whose new Royal Opera production opens this week. "I'm probably the only director of modern times who has staged La Rondine twice," he says. "I directed it at La Scala in 1994, so I know it quite well. The main reason that it has struggled is that it is so un-Puccinian. If you ask opera-goers why they like Puccini, they'll probably say, 'Big tunes, grand drama.' There are wonderful tunes in La Rondine but there is no grand drama, no stabbing, no violent death."

Instead there is a tale of love and its frustrations. In Paris, Magda (the swallow of the opera's title, because she will fly south to find happiness) is the mistress of the banker Rambaldo. When she meets the young innocent Ruggero, she falls in love. The couple set up house in Nice, but Magda soon realises that, in the world's eyes, her past makes her unworthy of Ruggero's love. Where the realisation might drive another Puccini heroine to suicide, Magda simply walks out of his life.

The ending approaches the quality of tragedy, but without overkill. Until that point, however, the opera is infectiously light. According to Joël, "The piece was commissioned as an operetta, but – thank God – Puccini was no Franz Lehár, and La Rondine is no Merry Widow. It's one of his most refined scores, but the action is the kind of bittersweet comedy that you find in a play by Schnitzler. It's a story of love at first sight that dissolves in the face of reality, and in that sense it's quite contemporary."

Yet Joël has not set it in our time; nor has he opted for Puccini's setting, France during the Second Empire. As Joël explains, "Puccini's score uses waltz rhythms, but also the foxtrot, the tango – dances of his time. For that reason it would be a mistake to set it in the era that Puccini suggested, because the music is not that at all, it's music of the early 20th century. The comedy comes through better if you set it then, instead of going for crinolines."

But, Joël insists, there is more here than comedy. "There is also a profound melancholy that has nothing to do with romanticism. So it needs a crisp – I wouldn't say severe, but strong – stage architecture. There is no frou-frou, no chi-chi, because the opera is not about that. Not that elegance is absent, because this world is rather elegant, and vulgar.

"I don't know of any opera, nor for that matter of many stage plays, where money plays such an important part. The sub-plot, about the relationship between a poet and Magda's maid, is about sex. The relationship between Magda and Rambaldo is about money and sex, but mostly money. And the central relationship, between Magda and Ruggero, is not about sex, and not about money. It has nowhere to go. This is a long way from romantic comedy."

'La Rondine', Royal Opera House, London WC2, (020 7304 4000) Tuesday to 22 May

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