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La Rondine, composed for Vienna just before the Great War and given the outbreak of war not premièred till March 1917 in Monte Carlo, to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami after a German original, is nominally set in the Second Empire Paris of Napoleon III (1808-73, and emperor from 1851), era of Paris's new Opera and of the boulevard-building Baron Haussmann.

Rice and Hawkes have slightly amended the setting : 'We've moved it forward to the Belle Epoque, mainly for practical reasons : just imagine it -- there'd be no room at all for more than three performers on Castleward's small stage if we adopted expansive Second Empire costumes! And with all those waltzes, the opera fits remarkably well just before the outbreak of the First World War, which was when Puccini was actually composing it.'

'Musically it's uneven, but it's certainly got some gorgeous moments (like Magda's famous early aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta ..."), and even Puccini's weaker passages are eminently stageable.' (There's a delightful comedy of errors in Act II, where Lisette fails to recognise her disguised mistress). 'I think of it as like staging a Noel Coward, or, yes, perhaps an Ivor Novello. But what I'm urging on them is not to get sentimental -- there's the danger of it being like a sloppy B-movie, and we have to try to counteract that tendency.'

'If you look under the surface you realise Magda's predicament -- of looking middle age full in the face -- is just about everyone's, and I include myself, I find myself identifying with her, having passed through just such a stage! I see her so much as Musetta about fifteen years down the line; she's given up penniless painters, has comfort and money, and then in a moment of fantasy throws it away. She's got everything : a civilised man (the rich banker Rambaldo) who doesn't demand too much, a son; and then suddenly she associates Ruggero with something from her own past and goes off on a whim.

'The Second Act is much like Act II of La Bohème, they've each got their own life to live. Her friend Prunier, the poet (sung by Eugene O'Hagan), is Rodolfo so many years on : he's not a great poet, but he's found a niche in society. Yet he can't get over this passion for working class girls.' And he tries, though more futilely, to turn the maid he fancies, Lisette (sung by Lucy Bates, who has -- and Tom Hawkes here allows himself to wax rapturous -- 'a most beautiful voice, with an extraordinary vulnerability') -- into an actress. (And of course he fails miserably : as soon as she can, Lisette just skulks back to her old job).

Castleward Opera was founded in 1985 by Jack Smith and its present Artistic Director, Ian Urwin, with a performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in the coach house to the National Trust's Castle Ward estate above Strangford, County Down. Like (more recently) Martin and Lizzie Graham at Longborough, near Moreton-in-Marsh on the Warwickshire-Gloucestershire border, Urwin and Smith turned the vision of creating an opera house out of a cobweb-adorned barn into a wonderful reality.

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Copyright © 29 May 2003 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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