Kelly triumphs against odds

La Rondine/The Marriage Of Figaro | Grand Theatre Leeds
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A Parisian courtesan with a rich protector falls in love with a young man, and he with her. They leave the city and enjoy a brief idyll of love, which is destroyed when he discovers her past.

A Parisian courtesan with a rich protector falls in love with a young man, and he with her. They leave the city and enjoy a brief idyll of love, which is destroyed when he discovers her past.

Not quite La Traviata, but too close for comfort, perhaps. The oddity of Puccini's La Rondine is further underlined by the fact that this Parisian romance is full of Viennese waltzes. It is generally considered to be one of Puccini's failures. And certainly the libretto has its weaknesses. It makes no sense to bring the young lover Ruggero on in Act One and then give him virtually nothing to sing. The third act denouement is also awkwardly managed.

But these are by no means fatal flaws. Puccini's score is fresh and inventive, full of colourful touches and memorable motifs. He handles the doomed romance with sympathy and delicacy. There is room for exuberance and delight, and the tragedy is not overdone. Sadness rather than desperation is the mood of the ending.

Janis Kelly, who gave us an irresistibly moving Violetta in Traviata last autumn, returns, appropriately enough, to sing the lead role, and achieves another triumph of singing and characterisation. Here is a singing actress, you think, who has such natural grace and emotional eloquence that she cannot fail to touch the heart. And so it is in La Rondine. She is much helped by having, as Ruggero, a warmly Italianate tenor, Jorge Antonio Pita - he is, in fact, a Cuban American - who actually takes the trouble to act and respond to her shy charms. The moments in Act Two, when, mutually embarrassed, they find themselves sitting together at a café table, were beautifully done.

Mary Hegarty sparkled as Lisette, Magda's maid. She and Wynne Evans, as Prunier, made a vivacious pair. Jonathan Best made a real and quite sympathetic character out of the rather thankless role of Rambaldo, Magda's rich and elderly protector. Dietfried Bernet's conducting had a wonderfully idiomatic feel to it, even if he occasionally allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the singers. This is a work that deserves a modest place in the regular repertory.

A revival of so familiar a piece as Figaro might be expected to be a rather routine affair. But not so in Leeds this time. With an entirely new cast of principals, Caroline Gawn's production had been carefully prepared, even if it was sometimes over-acted in pursuit of extra laughs. Colette Delahunt was an excellent Susanna, Emer McGilloway a suitably gawky but not ideally lyrical Cerubino. As the Countess Majella, Cullagh seemed too nervous to be fully committed in her singing.

The outstanding performances came from the two male leads. We got a glimpse of James Rutherford's rich baritonal promise when he took the small role of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream last winter. In the role of Figaro he came into his own. The voice is splendid, the diction was excellent, and he has a good stab at this difficult character. Roderick Williams's Count was also noteworthy. By turns brutal and debonair, eyeing up the country girls while his wife sits frozen with misery beside him, he showed a strong grasp of this rather nasty aristocrat.

The production itself shows less awareness of the class dimension of this complex comedy, while the four sets, one for each act, are, with the partial exception of that for Act Two, uniformly hideous and do little to assist the hard-working cast.

On tour to Newcastle, Salford, Nottingham, Hull and Leeds until 11 Nov