Music on CD: PUCCINI La Rondine Angela Gheorghiu; Roberto Alagna LSO / Antonio Pappano EMI 5 56338 2; two discs

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The Independent Culture
Puccini's 11th-hour bid to spruce up his act has never met with too much approval. Or popularity. There is that aria, of course: two minutes of heaven which could so easily have swollen to 10 minutes of heresy had Puccini not belatedly embarked upon his fat-free diet. But it's so beautifully set up, the melody tantalisingly withheld from the singing voice - the character of Prunier, the poet, first alludes to it in a spoken melodrama - until the heroine Magda, true to the opera's title - La Rondine ("The Swallow") - briefly, blissfully, soars with it. If the critic Mosco Carner had heard Angela Gheorghiu, he would probably have thought better of his oft-quoted epigram - "a bird with broken wings".

No, this is Puccini wanting to be Lehr ("The Merry Magda"?) wanting to be Verdi (La Traviata without the consumption), a slight but touching variant on the money-can't-buy-you-love scenario which, notwithstanding the inevitable heartbreak, keeps its spirits high and its powder dry.

Act 2 is seriously infectious, the closest we'll ever come in spirit and sound to a fully-fledged Italian operetta (well, it was written with Vienna in mind). For Maxim's substitute Bullier's, add your waltz song (this one gives Musetta a jolly good run for her money), two sets of lovers, and stir to the strains of a long vocal embrace. Really, when a performance is this good, La Rondine is a charmer. Antonio Pappano floors the competition with his articulate and elegant direction (the Maazel alternative on Sony with Te Kanawa and Domingo sounds positively Wagnerian by comparison). Piquancy and wit find a place in his reading (a zestful LSO ably demonstrating that rhythm is the key to this slimline Puccini). It is in every sense of the word stylish. True-life romance (much-hyped) is, of course, the key to the casting. But opera's "golden" couple are really rather good - she more than he, it has to be said. Alagna has this terrific voice but he uses it with so little imagination. Some (and no doubt he, too) would argue that the singing is honest and refreshingly free of affectation. But he denies us the enticement of this music, the little vocal endearments (like portamento) which excite and enliven and ennoble the line.

Uniquely, this recording gives him an entrance aria, Parigi! e la citta dei desideri (a late addition to the score which never became part of the "standard" version), but he can hardly be said to exhibit much gratitude in the singing of it. She, on the other hand, is grateful in all things, as fabulous a prospect as we've had in years.

Add to all this an excellent supporting cast - William Matteuzzi and Inva Mula especially engaging as couple No 2 (apt to be undercast as comprimario roles) - and the "bird with broken wings" makes an unscheduled recovery. Edward Seckerson