Puccini's swallow flits about
San Francisco Opera's 'La Rondine'
by Jason Victor Serinus
San Francisco Opera's new production of Puccini's La Rondine is simply fabulous. Not that the opera/operetta itself is without its faults. Arriving as it did during war-torn 1917, seven years after Puccini's string of successful heart-wrenching dramas, La Rondine's quasi-comedic frivolity elicited major disappointment. Though it contains far more engaging music than the great soprano showpiece "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta," which some have incorrectly labeled its sole hit tune, La Rondine retains its light, conversational geniality for a good two acts. Then, in a relatively short period of time, darkness descends, irrevocable decisions are made, and the romantic love that was at first mocked, then embraced, is sadly discarded. On SFO's opening night, Magda's ultimate transition from Ruggero's free lovebird to the "impure" swallow of Rambaldo's gilded cage arrived abruptly.
What saves the opera is its atmosphere and music. Lovely, perfumed, amusing, and wistful in turn, the score for La Rondine has the potential to transcend the libretto's handicapped conclusion. David Gockley and SFO more than provide.
Perhaps to enable set designer Ezio Frigerio to feature Art Deco decor, Nicolas Joel's production moves the action from mid-19th-century Paris and the Riviera to the 1920s. That may make mush of history, but it allowed Frigerio to create delightfully colorful, large-scaled sets. Debut costume designer Franca Squarciapino produced to-die-for hats and eye-catching capes and dresses.
Understanding that forward momentum and flow are central to Puccini's oeuvre, conductor Ion Marin paced the proceedings beautifully. Occasionally he drowned out his singers, but he colored the score masterfully. The big Act II chorus, supported by Lawrence Pech's choreography, was a special triumph.
Making her long-belated SFO debut in the role of Magda, superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu delivered the goods and then some. Runway-model thin and elegant, she entered in a gown whose side-slit seemed designed to reveal her tapered jams up to the panty-line. Did she intentionally kick up her heels in Gockley's direction? A graduate of the 125% School of Diva Drama, Gheorghiu pranced this way and that, wiggled and swiveled, raised her arms in pseudo-abandon, and intentionally twirled to display her perfectly proportioned derriere. In sum, she did everything possible to ensure that no one in the audience would take their eyes off her.
She also sang wonderfully. Though the voice is far from monstrous in size, it carries well in the upper range, is under complete control, and has a modicum of radiance in the mids. Innately dramatic, it could only begin to strut its stuff toward the end of the final act. Before that, the strutting was left to the body. Only the wicked amongst us, who awaited another love-couple scandal on the order of her recent dismissal from the cast of Chicago Lyric Opera's La Boheme, could possibly have been disappointed.
As her lover, tenor Misha Didyk sang as though he could have taken his place in the Three Tenors concerts. Didyk's glistening instrument and good looks were the stuff of dreams. Please, David Gockley, bring him back soon, ideally as Rodolfo or Cavaradossi.
Equally superb were high soprano Anna Christy (Lisette), who chirped away with consummate frivolity; debut tenor Gerard Powers (Prunier), whose lovely light lyricism seems unsuited for his imminent Bolshoi Opera debut as Don Jose; and the towering bass-baritone Philip Skinner (Rambaldo). Adler Fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Melody Moore, Katherine Tier, and Ji Young Yang sang well enough. It was ultimately Gheorghiu's show, and show she did. Here's hoping she'll return alongside Didyk in Boheme or Tosca.