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La Rondine

Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna star in the Metropolitan Opera's effervescent staging of Puccini's 1917 romance.

Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu
in La Rondine
(© Ken Howard)
The decision at the Metropolitan Opera to put Giacomo Puccini's 1917 lyric opera La Rondine -- last performed at the house over 70 years ago -- in the festive New Year's slot often reserved for Die Fledermaus couldn't have yielded more effervescent results. Conducted with consistent seasonal fireworks flair by Marco Amiliato and spotlighting the husband-wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, the opera was such a tonic that there's every chance mavens who've heretofore rated the opus low on the composer's roster will decide to do some reassessing and upgrading.

There's no denying that at first glance -- and even second -- Giuseppe Adami's libretto is perkily superficial. La Rondine ("The Swallow") undeniably owes a good deal to La Traviata in its depiction of Magda Gheorghiu) -- a sophisticated Parisienne engaged to the older Rambaldo (Samuel Ramey) -- who falls for Ruggero, a younger man (Alagna). She hopes to soar into a metaphorical sky, but instead sacrifices her aspirations for his benefit. Admittedly, the ending registers as contrived and, worse, phony -- even to Puccini and Adami, who tried a few alternate endings.

On closer examination, however, there's more going on within the three shortish acts (presented here with one intermission after the second act), which have been updated to the Moorish-mad 1920s by set designer Ezio Frigerio, The word "sogno" (dream) is sung repeatedly -- with the infatuated Magda saying at one point to Ruggero that the prospect of an affair is "a dream." He immediately replies that their romance is "real."

Exchanges of this sort occur often enough between characters -- including the poet Prunier (Marius Brenciu), who's toying with Magda's exuberant maid Lisette (Lisette Oropesa) -- that eventually the "commedia lirica" becomes a not-so-subtle but entertaining treatise on the fickle yet profound nature of mutual adoration. "Show respect for love," admonishes the chorus (skillfully rehearsed by Donald Palumbo) -- and this is what the creators have done in their way.

Puccini's way was to compose sweeping melodies and then orchestrate them for all the sweep they can sustain, which is plenty. There are any number of waltzes here -- and not just during the La Boheme-like rendezvous scene at Bullier's. But one of Puccini's gifts is that even when he isn't writing in three-quarter time, his melodic lines have a waltz's lilt. This is true of Magda's first-act aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" and the second act quartet with chorus backing, "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso," a drinking song, or brindisi, in celebration of smiles.

The primary smile is Magda's, which she eventually loses as the narrative unfolds, but which Gheorghiu highlights by putting smiles in her voice. Occasionally lacking the full power in her lower register to be heard above the orchestra, she was gloriously clear otherwise and made her "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" a marvel. Wearing Franca Squarciapino's costumes with, alternately, Paris glamour and rustic French simplicity, Gheorghiu neatly etched the self-deluded figure's conflicts. In contrast to his wife, Alagna was firm and virile in his lower registers but ran into vocal storms on the top notes. There was, however, no problem during the love scenes, which had the chemistry the audience undoubtedly expected.