We take our seats to the sound of the orchestra tuning, and the actors milling about the hugely impressive set for this evenings performance of Puccini’s La Rondine. As the lights go down and Puccini’s wonderful score begins in earnest, we are transported to 1930s Paris, as the exquisite costumes and set evoke the decadence of a high society Parisian dinner party.
La Rondine (The Swallow) is considered by many to be Puccini’s greatest opera, and with its emotive and captivatingly melodic score, it is easy to see why. We follow the story of Magda, courtesan and mistress to a wealthy lover, Rambaldo, who reminisces on her first romance in Paris and dreams of finding true love again. Enter Ruggero, the son of Rambaldo’s friend, who is in Paris for the first time and for whom Magda is willing to risk everything. La Rondine is ultimately an exploration of love in its many forms; indeed, we are told by the poet, Prunier, at the start of the piece that ‘romantic love is back in fashion’, though this is quickly dismissed by Magda’s feisty maid, Lisette.
Galina Averina dazzles as Magda; her beautiful voice compliments a passionate and assured performance, capturing the torment of a woman trapped between wanting to conceal her past and sustain her own happiness in the love she has finally found. Her rendition of ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ is delightfully engaging, and she commands the stage with aplomb.
The handsome newcomer, Ruggero, is sung with strength and plenty of emotion by Sébastien Guèze. He is convincing as the hapless romantic outsider, expressing Ruggero’s desperate devotion to Magda; the two have excellent chemistry onstage, particularly in the opening of the Act 3 as we see them enjoying their love after leaving Paris.
Magda’s maid, Lisette, and her unlikely relationship with Prunier, the poet, provides much of the comic relief. This pairing is inspired, as Claire Lee and Elgan Llŷr Thomas enchant the audience with their turbulent secret love affair. Thomas gives a laudable performance as the charming poet who delights his listeners with his newest creations. His tenor voice is exquisite, carrying Puccini’s melodies with skills and projecting over the orchestra with ease. Lee gives an equally impressive performance, and is endearing as the spirited and outspoken maid, audacious enough to ‘borrow’ her mistress’ clothes to go out on the town with her secret beau, all captured by her superb soprano vocals.
Philip Smith is commanding as the Parisian banker and Magda’s former lover, Rambaldo, adding his powerful baritone voice to the mix. And Pasquale Orchard (Yvette), Kathryn Sharpe (Bianca) and Laura Kelly-McInroy (Suzy) are hilarious as Magda’s flirtatious and frivolous friends in the opening scene, as they mock Prunier for his somewhat prudish views on romance.
The principal singers are supported with gusto by the 30-strong (at least!) Chorus of the Opera North, who come out in force as Magda arrives at Bullier’s Nightclub and the stage is filled with character and expressive dancing. The sheer power of the sound at the end of Act Two is astonishing; a demonstration of the immense talent in this company, and the skill of conductor Kerem Hasan.
Lighting, designed by Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill, cleverly compliments the strikingly impressive set by Leslie Travers (particularly impressive is the giant vase containing the most gigantic, elaborate bouquet of flowers I have ever seen occupying the back of the stage during the first act and forming the centerpiece for the nightclub in the second act), and this is all brought to life by Gabrielle Dalton’s magnificent costumes.
This production is a triumph for James Hurley, who makes his directorial debut; energetic, heartfelt and visually stunning, and capturing all the passion of true love as told through Puccini’s breathtaking score.