Saturday, January 24, 2015

Puccini's "La Rondine" at the Israeli Opera

The Israeli Opera’s most recent production has been Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine”. Conceived as a commission from Vienna’s Carltheater in 1913, this was Puccini’s only attempt to write a hybrid Italian-opera-Viennese-operetta, much as the idea of the operetta element displeased him. Puccini, however, made his conditions clear - that there would be no spoken texts, only sung. Once working together with librettist Giuseppe Adami, he did become amenable to the idea of writing a light, romantic opera. The premiere and its location had to be changed, due to constraints of World War I, and the opera was premiered in 1917 at the Grand Theatre de Monte Carlo, on neutral territory. This writer attended the performance at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv on January 17th 2015.

“La Rondine” is set in Paris and the French Riviera in the mid-19th century. The least known of Puccini’s later operas, it tells of the lavishly kept woman of a rich, elderly banker; she, however, craves romantic love and falls for Ruggero, a naïve, earnest younger man from a respectable family. She, Magda, is the “swallow” (rondine), a bird which flies towards the sun. Magda (Aurelia Florian) and her young lover Ruggero (Zoran Todorovich) enjoy an idyllic existence, living on borrowed time, until he presents his marriage proposal to her; she then reveals her past, telling him she can never be his wife and the opera ends with both of them heartbroken as she returns to her former life. Then there is the other, even less likely couple - Lisette, Magda’s maid, played by Hila Baggio and the poet Prunier, portrayed by Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu.

In a story of sweet sentimentality and seductive charm, showing life of the French upper crust and not-so-upper, the audience was presented with a feast for the eyes, both in sets and costumes: the first scene is the fashionable, elegant party scene at Magda’s Paris salon, followed by the buzzing, vibrant ever-so-French café scene, its stage crowded with people of different elements of society – stylish people, revelers and the risqué dancing of can-can girls and their sleazy partners; the final scene is set in an exotic, opulent summer house. And if “clothes make the man”, we were presented with all the most exquisite dress sense the late 19th century. But if the audience is bothered by a storyline that is somewhat on the lightweight side, there is always Puccini’s music which is rich and caressing, its dance rhythms intertwined into soaring melodic lines and daring, sophisticated, shifting harmonies.

The singers were of a high quality. Bass-baritone Vladimir Braun made for an authoritative Rambaldo Fernandez (Magda’s protector). Israeli soprano Hila Baggio, as Lisette, was coquettish, youthful and appealing, her brightly colored vocal timbre and whimsy both delighting the audience. Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu, no newcomer to the Israeli Opera, was an aloof, elusive and polished Prunier (a role he has sung at the Metropolitan Opera.) As Ruggero, lirico-spinto tenor Zoran Todorovich partnered Aurelia Florian with polish and much fine singing. Romanian soprano Florian, displaying natural theatrical ability and endowed with a voice abounding in flexibility, a palette of interesting colors and a large range of dynamic variety, gave her all to the role of Magda - feminine charm, passion and emotion - winning the audience over with her total involvement. The Israel Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Frédéric Chaslin, performed with elegance, at times with reserve.

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