Puccini and Adami, after Willner and Reichert
Grand Theatre, Leeds
October 20 – 28, 2023: 2 hrs 10 mins
(Also Theatre Royal, Newcastle, November 1 and 3; Theatre Royal, Nottingham, November 8 and 10, The Lowry, Salford, November 17).
Puccini wrote La Rondine (The Swallow) towards the end of the Great War, with a hope of bringing together the Romantic traditions of Austria and Germany with his own native Italy, and has been criticised for it ever since.
To make things worse, he wasn’t very satisfied with the last Act of the opera anyway, and kept tinkering with it, with the result that there are now four different versions. Last time Opera North did it, nearly 30 years ago, they used a restored version of one of his second-thoughts: this time they’ve gone back to (nearly) the original 1917 performance version.
The title refers to the heroine, Magda, who, though young, is a Parisian kept woman, enjoying wealth and ease in return for being a banker’s plaything. She’s friendly with a young poet, Prunier, who predicts that one day she’ll “fly away” and find true love. She puts that to the test, finds a young man, Ruggero, who also loves her, and they make their nest in the south. So far, so La Traviata. There’s also a bit of a sub-plot about her maid, Lisette, who’s Prunier’s girl but goes out on the town on her night off, borrowing her mistress’s posh clothes – only to find herself at the same nightspot as her boss… so also rather echoing Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
The libretto has, not surprisingly, been criticised for near-plagiarism, which may be why Puccini tried to change the final act, where Magda and her Ruggero finally split, she sacrificing herself because she can’t marry him with her reputation (in this version)… or after having a blazing row (the other one). Of course he couldn’t have her dying of consumption to bring it all to an end – he’d already done that in La Boheme.
The music has also been criticised for being a mish-mash of styles. There is all Puccini’s own luxurious orchestral sound (much admired by Andrew Lloyd Webber) and conversational vocal writing alongside big lyrical numbers, but also a succession of waltz tunes, designed to capture a sense of Belle Epoque Paris and appeal to the northern Europeans, too.
The strength of this production by James Hurley, and of the way the music is controlled by conductor Kerem Hasan, is that it doesn’t apologise for supposed flaws but makes the most of the piece’s strengths, which are considerable. The writing is truly marvellous, as performed by this team of youthful soloists and with most of the lesser roles taken by members of Opera North’s extremely gifted chorus. Galina Averina, making her debut with the company, sings the title role with great beauty, and is excellently supported by Sébastien Guèze (Ruggero), Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Prunier) and Claire Lees (Lisette).
Hasan shapes the pace and intensity so the whole thing pivots on the highpoint of a wonderful ensemble-and-chorus number near the end of the second Act, and the last part, though hardly a surprise ending, seems to follow naturally. We knew it would all end in tears.
Hurley’s setting – designed, as are the other two shows in this “Green” season from Opera North, by Leslie Travers – manages to be functional and seem lavish at the same time, mainly through clever lighting (Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill) and some very classy costumes (Gabrielle Dalton): it’s set in the time of the opera’s creation, with very posh frocks for all the girls.
More info and tickets here