Music review: La rondine, Royal Opera House, London

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Why did Angela Gheorghiu look so uneasy taking her curtain calls at the revived Rondine's first night? It couldn't just have been her unflattering wardrobe for Act 3. One had the sense that there was, for her, some underlying problem with her part, or with the production, or even with the opera itself. Puccini was never satisfied with this un-categorisable hybrid, and he was still tinkering with it at the end of his life.

The plot of La rondine has superficial echoes of other Puccini operas. Spying each other across a crowded room, rich courtesan Magda and handsome young Ruggero are struck by a coup de foudre and elope; he wants marital bliss with babies, but she unexpectedly turns against the idea, pleading that she is not 'pure' and that her 'shame' means she must return to her gilded cage in Paris, which she accordingly does. The grisettes with their sugar-daddy protectors in La boheme come to mind, as does Violetta's renunciation in La traviata. But La rondine is no tragedy: as director Nicolas Joel observes in his programme note, all Magda wants is a brief diversion. And since the libretto fails to invest Ruggero's character with any reality, we have no interest in what happens to him. This is a sardonic social comedy.

Thirteen years on, Ezio Frigerio's Art Nouveau sets look tired - too many restaurateurs have been down that road - and the production has coarsened. We don't believe the caricatured figures in Rambaldo Fernandez's salon, any more than we do the creatures thronging Bullier's night-spot - vulgar contemporary ladettes, rather than the louche revellers Puccini presumably intended. This strenuously busy production suggests desperation rather than spontaneously wild abandon.

With a banal libretto and a plot which doesn't stack up, everything depends on the performances. Conductor Marco Armiliato extracts much of the quality Puccini saw in his own score - 'agreeable, limpid… as clear as spring water' - and Edgaras Montvidas's incarnation of the poet Prunier is vivid and resonant, as is Sabina Puertolas's performance as his flighty paramour Lisette. But Pietro Spagnoli's Rambaldo is a two-dimensional creation, and, with Gheorghiu's Magda and Charles Castronovo's Ruggero, there was a hole where this show's heart should have been. Castronovo's singing was colourless and he moved like a waxwork, while Gheorghiu's voice had none of its celebrated bloom and beauty; until she rallied in the final scene, it was seriously underpowered. These lovers didn't convince for a moment.

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