Puccini – La Rondine

Paris Châtelet, July 7 2005

Production: Nicolas Joël. Sets: Ezio Frigerio. Costumes: Franca Squarciapino. Conductor: Marco Armiliato. Madga de Civry: Katie Van Kooten. Lisette: Annamaria dell'Oste. Ruggero Lastouc: Giuseppe Filianoti. Prunier: Marius Brenciu. Rambaldo Fernandez: Alberto Rinaldi. Suzy: Elsa Maurus. Yvette: Oriana Kurteshi. Bianca: Nicole Fournié. Périchaud: Frédéric Caton. Gobin: Jean-Pierre Lautré. Crébillon: Thierry Félix. Majordomo: Thierry Vincent. Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitole de Toulouse.

Puccini is not a favourite of mine and I suspect I’d have given La Rondine a miss had Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu not been in the cast to ensure that this curiosity would be worth hearing. In the event, “Rototo,” as he’s known to local opera gossips, dropped out months ago, and “Glouglou” didn’t appear at rehearsals last week.

I was aware of this, and spent an entertaining half hour positioned strategically behind the Châtelet’s glass doors to watch patrons’ faces drop as they read the announcement of Gheorghiu’s illness and replacement. Just how ill-informed some opera-goers can be was made clear inside by the conversation on the row behind. “What have we got tonight?” “La Rondine.” “Who’s it by?” “Puccini.” “Oh, that’s alright then.” “Yes, and there’s Alagna and Gheorghiu, so it should be good” “Gheorghiu’s ill, there was a sign on the door.” “Well, there’s still Alagna.” “Are you sure? His name isn’t in the programme…”

I was afraid we might be in for a dull evening. We weren’t. Perhaps it was one of those occasions when adversity eggs people on to greater things. Conductor, orchestra and singers pulled out all the stops and gave us an evening of Puccini at his amiable worst: wave upon wave of lush, golden, glittering, seductive sound turning the modest plot, with a bitter twist at the end and “one aria,” into a sumptuous, glamorous operetta.

The sopranos, Magda and Lisette, had suitably contrasting voices, the former light and bright with a quick, even, tight vibrato, the latter darker and more inclined to waver in the medium; but each had unexpectedly powerful, gleaming top notes that came in very handy during the evening. The two tenors were young and bright, and Giuseppe Filianoti had the notes to carry off the considerable part; if with experience he gains in control and taste, he should do well. The orchestra was on fabulous form from start to finish, and the ensemble scene, with chorus, in act 2, was outstanding.

The right word for the coproduction with Covent Garden might be “gorgeous.” The opera was set in 1920, when art nouveau was morphing into art déco and Paul Poiret into Coco Chanel. Act 1 was set in a lavish, late art nouveau house, more Vienna than Paris, with marble floors, tall, square columns inlaid with turquoise, and gilded frescos, part Klimt, part Mucha. For Act 2, the columns had moved to transform the same space into a luxurious brasserie, with a huge stained-glass window behind a dance floor to the rear, a bar to the left, bistrot tables and Thonet chairs. In Act 3, we moved to the conservatory of a grand hotel, with a vast stained glass canopy depicting grape vines, round, mosaic columns, potted palms and cane furniture.

The costumes were perfect and the acting around the unfortunate Katie Van Kooten, brought in at the last minute and pardonably gauche, was lively, finely tuned teamwork.“It makes a restful change to have something easy for once,” said my neighbour. The contrast with Cherubini's austere Medea tomorrow will certainly be interesting.

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