After composing several tremendously successful operas, Puccini began to search for new source materials. He was persuaded to write an opera in the style of Viennese operetta, and so La Rondine was born. While it was originally commissioned for Vienna's Carltheater, the outbreak of World War I forced the premiere to be moved to Monte Carlo. It was well-received by audiences and critics alike, but as time passed, its popularity waned. Today, the average opera-goer is usually only familiar with the famous aria, Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta.
La Rondine tells the story of a kept woman who meets and falls in love with a young man who has come to Paris. After calling on her protector, he is sent to a local cabaret to spend the evening. She later sneaks out, meets up with him there, and the pair move to the Riviera together. When he writes home and receives permission to marry her, however, she realizes that her past would prevent such a marriage. She reveals her true identity to him and returns to her protector in Paris, leaving him brokenhearted.
While La Rondine is rare for a Puccini opera in that nobody dies, Puccini (of course) couldn't leave well enough alone. An alternate ending has the young man leave her when he discovers her past, and she drowns herself in the sea rather than return to her old life. However, the first version is the most commonly accepted ending for the opera, and most productions end with every member of the cast still among the living.
Florida Grand Opera presents us with a sparkling, thoroughly charming production set in 1920s Paris, complete with a lively cabaret, vintage bathing costumes, and my personal favorite, lots of shiny stuff. The scenery was lovely, and very well done. While the dancing in Act II is integral to telling the story and setting the mood, however, I found it to be a bit too much. At times it seemed to almost distract me from what I was actually there for: the opera. At other times, though, I was completely caught up and swept away by the beauty of the music and the power of the principle singers.
The role of the young man, Ruggero, is sung by Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro, who makes his Florida Grand Opera debut with this production. He has a lovely, lush voice that easily reaches the back of the house. He beautifully conveys the hopes and dreams of the young Ruggero, and when he is left alone at the end of the opera, the audience feels his heartbreak right along with him.
But the real star of the evening was Elizabeth Caballero, the Cuban soprano who sings the role of Magda, the "swallow" of the title who flies toward the sea to find love. She was charming, graceful, and full of playful energy. Her voice is rich and full, at times gentle and tender, and at times raw and torn with conflicting emotions. Her rendition of Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta is among the most beautiful I have heard, and it earned her much well-deserved, rather enthusiastic applause. Here she can be heard delivering this famous aria:
La Rondine was a new experience for me. I was unfamiliar with most of the opera, with the exception of one aria and a couple of duets. I was therefor not really sure what to expect. It is, after all, one of Puccini's least-successful operas, and I assumed there must be a good reason for that. Well, you know what they say about what happens when you assume. Anyway, I found that my assumptions were incorrect, and while the story didn't grip me in quite the same way that most Puccini operas do, the music was absolutely lovely, and the evening thoroughly enjoyable. I would strongly urge all lovers of grand opera to seize this rare opportunity and go to see La Rondine while they can. It may be many years before we are again given the chance to experience this uncommon yet splendidly delightful opera.