British Youth Opera's 'La Rondine',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
Puccini's La Rondine is one of his relatively rarely performed works. It is nowhere near as popular as his other operas despite its abundant tunefulness. Part of the problem may be the closeness of the story to that of La Traviata. But that problem does not appear to affect Puccini's Manon Lescaut, which manages to maintain a life of its own in the opera house. More serious is the weakness of the last act; the opera finishes when the plot concludes, but Puccini's music fails to rise to a satisfying conclusion. Instead you are left feeling that the real final scene is missing.
So revivals of the opera must usually depend on the personality of a particular performer: the Royal Opera's recent outing was centred on Angela Gheorghiu as Magda. Another factor may be that Magda cannot be too much of a girlie role -- she must seem to be experienced and worldly. In fact the role has successfully been taken by ageing sopranos.
For its revival of La Rondine at London's Peacock Theatre (seen Friday 5 September 2008), British Youth Opera was lucky enough to have young dramatic-soprano-in-training Meeta Raval as Magda. Raval is twenty five, hails from Wolverhampton and is of Indian heritage. She won the Dame Eva Turner Competition for 'a soprano with dramatic potential' and recently sang the Countess (Le Nozze di Figaro) under Sir Colin Davis.
Raval has a bright, focussed, generous voice; not necessarily a Puccini voice, but her fine sense of line and the way her personality shines through made her a fine choice for the role.
Despite being only twenty five, Raval is a confident stage performer. She managed to bring off the rather dodgy black bob wig which costume designer Isla Shaw had given her and by her general demeanour conveyed an experience and world-weariness which set her off from tenor, Telman Guzhevsky, who played Ruggero.
I suspect that Armenian born Guzhevsky is older than Raval. But his eager, puppyish naivety as Ruggero, a good contrast with Raval, is made all the more touching for the way his world collapses at the end. Guzhevsky has a silvery, lyric Italianate voice which he should take care that he does not push. Currently his voice is rather closer in style to that of Alfredo Kraus than Placido Domingo, and Kraus is a fine model for a tenor of this style.
In fact, with both Raval and Guzhevsky, one senses talented performers with distinctive voices who, in their different ways, must be wary of doing too much too soon.
John Lloyd-Davies as director and designer opted to set the opera in the 1920s rather than the Belle Epoque: perhaps it made the costumes easier and cheaper to source; certainly some of the chorus were in very skimpy numbers. Still, the plot works, just about, when set in the Roaring Twenties, though Ruggero's naivety about Magda's real profession is a bit of a stretch. But to give him his due, Guzhevsky did convince us of this.
Lloyd-Davies' set was an abstract one: just triangles covered with black and white Art Nouveau designs, the back-drop of each act enlivened by relevant projections, the set dressed suitably. Magda's salon was all red curtains, with a piano for the on-stage pianist in 'Il sogno di Doretta'; Bullier's Club was more surreal with gilt chairs hanging from the ceiling; the last act saw the stage covered in flowers.
The two principals were well supported by a fine ensemble of smaller characters; Laurie Ashworth, Melanie Lang and Michelle Daly as Magda's three friends, ex-grisettes all; Thomas Kennedy, John Pumphrey and Aidan Giles Smith as the trio of men surrounding Rambaldo; Jonathan Sells was tall and distinguished looking in the small but important role of Rambaldo, Magda's protector. Lloyd-Davies made it clear from Rambaldo's entrance into Bullier's at the end of Act 2, that he was more of a gangster boss than an aristocrat.
Thomas Herford sang the important role of Prunier, Magda's tame poet. (It helps to place the opera if you think of Magda and Prunier as La bohème's Musetta and Rodolfo in later life.) Herford has an attractive English lyric tenor voice and Prunier was not an obvious role for him, but he acquitted himself admirably. The voice may not have quite an Italianate tone, but in terms of beauty and suppleness of line, he was ideal. His love interest is Lisette, Magda's maid, with whom Prunier bickers throughout the evening. Lisette was played sparkily by Sadhbh Dennedy.
The only chorus scene was that at Bullier's. Lloyd-Davies' staging did not aim for naturalism with the chorus drifting on and off, and often eavesdropping the lovers. The chorus members were hard working though one or two showed their inexperience, but this is what such shows are about.
The singers were admirably accompanied by the South Bank Sinfonia, playing Tony Burke's reduced orchestration with an orchestra of twenty seven players. The South Bank Sinfonia is itself an organisation devoted to giving young professionals more experience. Conductor Peter Robinson was admirable both in the way that he gave the young singers space and encouragement, and in his shaping of Puccini's melody lines.
La Rondine may not be Puccini's most complex opera, but he lavishes on it a fund of glorious melody. British Youth Opera's fine cast relished all their opportunities, but it was the performance of Meeta Raval as Magda which really shone out; Raval is definitely a singer to watch.
Copyright © 8 September 2008
Robert Hugill, London UK
LOS ANGELES OPERA'S 'LA RONDINE'
There are two further performances of British Youth Opera's La Rondine at The Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, London WC2, on Tuesday 9 and Thursday 11 September 2008, both at 7pm. BYO is also performing Jonathan Dove's Flight at the same venue, Wednesday 10 and Friday 12 September 2008, again at 7pm. Info: www.byo.org.uk