OPERA / Pleasure in a dying fall: Julian Rushton on Opera North's new staging of La rondine by Puccini

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The Independent Culture
Few, I imagine, left Opera North's production of La rondine (The Swallow) without wondering why this late work by the century's most popular opera composer should be so neglected. Puccini quickly evaded its origins in a commission to write a Viennese operetta; indeed, the production numbers of that genre are the antithesis of the continuous ebb and flow between intimate and crowded scenes, comedy and pathos of La rondine, and all Puccini's instrumental flair is devoted to constructing a naturalistic opera out of a few sharply etched musical motifs.

The public normally expects blood from Puccini, whereas here the ending is a misfortune but no tragedy; but, as La Boheme and Gianni Schicchi both show, he was also adept at fast-moving comic scenes and at sentiment. La rondine is so characteristic of Puccini at his best that one hopes its enthusiastic reception in Leeds may signal its belated entry into the repertory.

La rondine will always be dependent on stylish performance. The company's founding musical director David Lloyd-Jones happily rediscovers a magic touch with the orchestra remembered from Manon Lescaut a dozen years ago. The tricky changes of mood (which include a substantial homage to Vienna in the form of waltzes) are well moulded and the chorus displays particular gusto in the night-club sequence of Act 2, which for some reason (I hope not just economy) was set outdoors, the sole backdrop a group of rather wobbly trees.

Bruno Schwengl (designer) and Alan Burrett (lighting) arrange a colour crescendo from the claustrophobic salon of Act 1 through a scarcely-nocturnal blue in Act 2 to the blinding sunlight which burns the characters' illusions in Act 3. Here the only furniture was an upturned boat and a broken statue, but this obvious symbolism was not intrusive. Directing, Francesca Zambello never puts a foot wrong, allowing full scope for characterisation to the strong cast.

Opera North elects to revive Puccini's revised ending. Instead of Magda confessing her past and renouncing love, her secret is betrayed (by whom? but it hardly matters) and her young lover Ruggero rejects her. Dramatically, this version is sharper, even if it does not succeed in redeeming Ruggero's role: he develops only from a wimp to a petulant adolescent, despite the appealing singing of Tito Beltran. In the secondary, but larger, tenor role of the poet Prunier, Peter Bronder is neatly got up to look like Schubert and performs delightfully, with Anna Maria Panzarella enjoyably portraying his temperamental lover Lisette. Helen Field is a committed Magda and by Act 3 she was singing gloriously and with a new warmth. She handles perfectly the transformation from the kept mistress whose lover (a thankless role projected by Peter Savidge) treats her as a status symbol, through the confident grisette of Act 2, where she picks up Ruggero, to the vulnerable sadness of the ending.

In rep at Leeds Grand Theatre (0532 459351) to 29 Apr, then touring