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Theatre: La Rondine flies again

La Rondine

Royal Albert Hall

Just in case it should have escaped anyone's notice, " - the concert" was also an award-winning album. The Royal Opera's crest may have adorned the programme book, but the event bore all the trappings of an EMI promotion - glossy flyers, the works. Not that anyone at the Royal Opera was complaining. Right now everyone benefits from a piece of opera's golden couple. If Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu hadn't found each other, someone would have done it for them. Not even Puccini could portray them as more in love than they really are. On stage, the playful, even mischievous glances, the whispered exchanges, the expressions of encouragement, so pointed as to look as though they might just be (surely not?) playing to the gallery. Who could believe in unhappy endings anymore? In this opera, they fall in love but must part. Just imagine what that would do to the album sales.

Ironically, it is Gheorghiu's character Magda whose idealistic dream of true love provides a happy ending for the poet Prunier's latest lyric (that's "Doretta's Song" to you and me) and the starting point for the opera. Talk about art imitating life imitating real life. This is the hit number, of course, and all we need now is the hit single (Andrew Lloyd Webber has already had a pretty good shot at cloning it in his new song for Dame Kiri). Gheorghiu sings it like it's up there where she belongs. Indeed, much of the role's character is in its high tessitura. True love is something that Magda, the kept-woman, has always thought unattainable until now. It exists, in her dreams, somewhere beyond the clouds, over the rainbow - all those cliches - and now she's found it... It's a role that, vocally speaking, is all about attaining, and sustaining, the ascendancy. It's all about rapture, and ecstasy. And Gheorghiu, if not quite at her best (which is considerable), was almost there. The big moments, the big notes, certainly were (the moment in which she finally parts company with her rich patron, Rambaldo, was rightly the turning point of the evening); the fine-spun sostenutos less so than usual. But that sound - it's as if all the richness and duskiness of her lower register has been pushed up into the rest of the voice. I've yet to hear an ugly or unmeaningful note from her.

Her other (though indubitably not better) half was also in good voice. It's a fine instrument, this, and it's filling out and marinating nicely (ample resonance in the bottom notes and no narrowing at the top). If only Alagna's phrasing were as enticing as his timbre. Occasionally it happens - something tugged at him and us in the final duet, and it was straightway liberating, as if he'd finally cast off his self-styled musical inhibitions.

The ebullient (if that's not an understatement) conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, did so in spades. He scorned the Albert Hall acoustic which sometimes meant that his raciness went ricocheting every which way but ours. Still, his advocacy of this lovely score was nothing if not ardent, and he was quick to underline (in often extravagant rubatos) the notion that everything in is rooted in the spirit of the dance. Even the love duets glide airily from the dance floors of Parisian nightlife. La Traviata meets The Merry Widow. In spirit, we never really leave Bullier's, the fashionable nightspot of the opera's second act where Puccini's happy couples bask in the first flush of romance (and let's not forget here the delightful Rosemary Joshua and Francesco Piccoli as Lisette and Prunier, the opera's other love interest) and all glasses are charged for a musical toast like so few others: "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso" ("I drink to your fresh smile"), as sumptuous and schwung as anything in Puccini. Whatever the future may hold for Alagna and Gheorghiu (and their union could well compromise their individual strengths), at least they were instrumental in getting ("The Swallow" - or "bird with broken wings" as one critic once dismissed it) flying again.