The 1917 premiere of La rondine, which took place in Montecarlo in 1917, was preceded by an eventful gestation period, involving a Viennese commission, a libretto originally written in German, extensive revision by the Italian translator/librettist, and completion of the work while Austria and Italy were wartime adversaries. Puccini had signed a contract to write an operetta, immediately excluding the possibility of spoken dialogues, something of which Italian audiences have never been fond. Of that genre, then at the apex of its popularity, this new work would have retained the sparkling and slightly frivolous atmosphere, largely peppered with lively dance measures. If the Montecarlo premiere, with a cast including names such as Gilda Dalla Rizza and Tito Schipa conducted by Marinuzzi, attracted favourable attention, its first Italian outing, in Bologna a few months later, turned out to be a fiasco. As in many other occasions, Puccini immediately started to revise the opera, especially its third act, which has always been – to this day – the weakest link. Vienna hosted the 1920 revision, again a flop: the more hurried third act had Magda, prodded by Rambaldo, leave Ruggero without even bidding him farewell. In spite of the composer’s urging, neither New York nor London, deterred by these fiascos, accepted to stage La rondine. Puccini, still unsatisfied by the finale, concocted a much more dramatic third act: Ruggero, after receiving an anonymous letter, discovers Magda’s past and leaves her into the arms of Rambaldo, who had gone to their love nest to take her back. Unfortunately he prepared only a vocal/piano score of this ending; a more heated and intense denouement would have likely increased the popularity of this opera, which has always been the least performed among his post Manon Lescaut works. Giuseppe Adami’s libretto is a lukewarm stew with insipid ingredients that smell déjà vu from the very first scene, and it is truly incredible that Puccini, ever the unsatisfied one in the choice of plots and librettos, accepted to set to work on a pale photocopy of La traviata, with a little bit of Die Fledermaus and even Fedora blended in. However, if the Verdi heroine is one of most multifaceted, complex and intriguing characters in the whole history of opera, Magda is an evanescent, cloying and not too plausible figure. Ruggero is an even more anonymous and evasive character; in the second version Puccini gave him an aria to sing in the first act, which he later removed. The most original feature of the libretto is the other couple, formed by Lisette, Magda’s maid and the eccentric poet Prunier: their dialogues, or better squabbles, are the most stimulating element of the opera.
For the opera to succeed the presence of a charismatic and charming primadonna is crucial; she must be femme fatale to a certain point, because she cannot afford to lose the audience’s sympathy. Since there is very little action, it is vital that the audience has a good disposition towards the protagonist, whose main traits, an introspective wistfulness and a poised graciousness, clearly suits the interpretative sympathies of Maria Luigia Borsi, who succeeds admirably at building a character through the music material provided by Puccini employing a nuanced but constantly composed phrasing, without histrionic superimposition. Magda’s tessitura and extension seems to have been tailored to Ms. Borsi’s full lyric soprano, gifted with a sensual and meaty central register and an easy and pliable top. The part includes a vast number of high notes to be produced with a wide range of dynamics, from the forte of the ensemble to the suave pianissimo of the most popular aria, the so-called “Doretta’s dream”, where Ms. Borsi revealed beautiful high As natural in pianissimo (“Folle amore”), not to mention the pure and winged C 6. The most arduous note in the aria is in my opinion the B 5 flat of “O sogni d’or” where a good number of sopranos remain short of breath and are forced to cut it abruptly. Praiseworthy was also “Ore dolci e divine” where she found different dynamics for all the high As it contains. Salvatore Cordella possesses a full lyric tenor, with a remarkable volume and quite pleasant to the ear. He seemed to be paying attention to the spirit of the role, singing gently and sweetly whenever he could, at times with too much impetuousness, probably trying to infuse some life in an amorphous and lame character: such violent jumps into the high register, albeit dramatically plausible, caused him to sing sharp on several occasions. Ruggero is the opera’s Achilles’ heel and Cordella after all succeeded at making his aria (the dullest Puccini ever wrote for a tenor voice) and the final duet better material than it actually is. Prunier is a much more difficult role to cast, because, while calling for a lead tenor, is inevitably assigned to character tenors unable to face its vocal and interpretative hurdles. Francesco Marsiglia revealed a vibrant light lyric tenor (thus creating a nice contrast with Cordella’s darker colour) full of overtones, with a secure top that enabled him to sing the high C of the phrase “fuori dal mondo” in Act III (duet with Lisette) with a pleasing falsettone. Lisette was an excellent Lavinia Bini, who showed immaculate pitch in her Act I breathless irruption announcing Ruggero’s visit, a piece characterized by a marked bitonality rather difficult to perform. In the love duettino at the end of Act I (undoubtedly the most original part of the opera), both Ms. Bini and Marsiglia showed an impressive ability to engage in pure conversational singing, worthy of a good straight theatre actor. If Lisette is the quintessential soubrette role, Ms. Bini’s timbre, that of a light lyric soprano, is not marred by the acid and petulant timbre typical of this fach.
The numerous secondary roles were competently cast: Francesco Facini, an aptly ill-mannered and brusque Rambaldo, Andrea Zaupa (Périchaud), Marco Voleri (Gobin), Alessandro Calamai (Crébillon), Alessandra Meozzi (Bianca), Chiara Brunello (Suzy), Alessandro Bilotti (un maggiordomo), though the limpid timbre of Mirella Di Vita as Yvette stood out.
At the helm of an exquisite Orchestra della Toscana, conductor Massimiliano Stefanelli showed his skillfulness at maintaining an easy flow through the many tricky tempo transitions, making them seem natural and inevitable. Puccini “plays” with a seemingly endless variety of vocal and instrumental colours, combining them in diverting and ravishing ways, which Stefanelli requested and obtained in abundance from the choral and orchestral forces. Highly effective was the showstopper “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”, one of those typically Puccinian broad diatonic themes, which the conductor led with a tight rein while sailing smoothly towards the climatic ending.
Following a well-rooted trend, Gino Zampieri transported the action from Second Empire Paris to the time of the opera’s creation, in a characteristically art-deco setting. The costumes of Rosanna Monti (also responsible for the sets), while quite beautiful, detailed and faithful to the chosen period, were often of the same colours as the background and the floor, thus creating some visual monotony. Inappropriate and even a bit bothersome was the second act ballet: I am not referring to the waltz dances required by the score, but to the distracting pirouettes during the Act II ensemble. Particularly commendable on the other hand was the successful attempt of the director to impart spontaneity and verve to the singer’s acting.
This mise-en-scène was a co-production among several Italian opera companies: the Teatro del Giglio, as the leading producer, hosted the premiere of this “minor” Puccini opera that, though revealing its masterpiece status more to the eye of the musicologist than the one of the common opera-goer, holds gems of unparalleled value, which that the audiences of Livorno, Pisa, Modena and Ravenna – in the wake of the Lucchesi that welcomed it with a warm applause – will be able to discover and enjoy in the upcoming weeks: this time it is legitimate to say that “The Swallow” has taken off in flight.
photos by Giuseppe Giovannelli