Undercroft Opera is performing a Giacomo Puccini “rarity” this weekend at Carlow University’s Antonian Theatre – La Rondine (“The Swallow”), which hasn’t been heard locally since early 1982, when Pittsburgh Opera presented it here for the first time and the newspaper critics went to work panning it as weak operetta with few moments of importance. The work has never been considered one of the composer’s greatest efforts, in part because it is too often unfavorably compared to his Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and so on. But historical fact makes it clear that he had no intention of making it one of his “grand operas” when he was originally approached to work on a piece more in keeping with the popular “Viennese” style of operetta. It has merits that would be considered praiseworthy if they had flowed from the pen of a lesser known composer, and after the opera premiered at Monte Carlo in March 1917, while war raged in surrounding European countries, the composer made a couple of revisions to his score in an attempt to broaden its appeal. But to this day, there is no official “final” version, since Puccini died in 1924 before he could decide on which revision was the last word.
It didn’t reach the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 1928, partly due to the complications of the war, but has never played a particularly large part in that theater’s doings, and revivals there and elsewhere worldwide have been sporadic for the last century. Its comparative unpopularity is something along the lines of berating a Leonardo da Vinci painting that doesn’t measure up to the “Mona Lisa,” for while La Rondine may not be Puccini’s most shining achievement, it has musical beauties in the score that are worth more hearings than they receive. But, in fairness, to say that La Rondine is an underrated masterpiece of the composer wouldn’t be entirely true, either.
Puccini composed the music to an Italian libretto Giuseppe Adami adapted from a German version by Alfred Maria Willner and Heinz Reichert. Originally set in mid-19th century Paris, the slight plot revolves around a “kept” woman in search of true love, her circle of acquaintances; her finding true love, and her desertion of it to save the young man and his family’s reputation (even though he doesn’t want to be saved). Of course, there are small side antics and bits of action that make the story more colorful, but not so many as to make great demands on audience appreciation or tax the concentration of the listener. Despite the large cast, most of the vocal demands are made on a few characters, mainly Magda, the leading soprano role. She is the metaphorical “Swallow,” on the wing in search of happiness. Undercroft’s trimmed production moves the action of the first two acts to Prohibition-era New York, while the third takes place on the French Riviera.
There was a great deal of vocal talent on the stage last night. The young singers, colorfully costumed, performed their roles amidst minimalistic but adequately effective staging, and had a reliable and engaging conductor, Brian Gilling, to help them along when needed. While Undercroft’s orchestra produced a more consistent tone than on the one occasion I heard it play last spring, there were still a few rough spots, but Mr. Gilling smoothed them over to the best of his ability, and the players showed a decided improvement in unity and precision. A native of Boston, Mr. Gilling holds bachelors and masters degrees from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music, and hopefully will conduct again in this city in the near future. It’s easy to spot a conductor who is a thorough musician, and Mr. Gilling is just such a leader.
Because the opera tries the strength of only a few of the singers, the cast is able to remain largely intact for performances on three consecutive evenings and an afternoon. The program notes and Undercroft’s website don’t specify as much, but I suspect that the leads heard last night will perform again on Saturday evening, while Carolyn Forte (Magda), Emily Swora (Lisette), Jesse Lowry (Ruggero) and Sarah Marie Nadler (Yvette) will be heard Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
The large ensemble last night (and for the remaining performances) was for the most part handled quite successfully by Joseph Andreola (Rambaldo, Magda’s “keeper”), George Milosh (Prunier, the poet), Caryn Crozier (Bianca), Stephen Kuhn (Périchaud), Naomi Berkey (Lolette), Amanda Lewis (Georgette), Takako Petek (Gabriella) and Namy Joseph Farah (the Butler), while two members did “double duty” – Paul Yeater (Gobin and Adolfo) and Benjamin Zaksek (Crebillon and Rabonnier). They were an entertaining group, and added to the enjoyment of the performance.
Last night’s Magda, Emily Hopkins, brought to the role a strong, brilliant voice, particularly impressive in its upper register, and a smooth sense of legato that allowed her to soar to the higher flights with ease. She was becoming in appearance and made the most of the part’s slight acting opportunities. Shin-Yeong Noh was a delightful Lisette, the maid with singing aspirations. It challenged the imagination to hear such a beautiful voice sing of her failure as a singer! Everything said of Ms. Hopkins may be said in equal degree of Ms. Noh, and her role allowed for comic episodes which she handled quite amusingly. Claudia Brown, as Yvette, made the most that could be made of her role, and sang very effectively.
William Andrews, in the role of Ruggero, sang with a pure tenor voice well suited to Puccini’s music, and showed to much better advantage than he did last summer in Strauss’ The Silent Woman. One or two spots were a trifle high for him to reach with ease, but overall his interpretation was effectively sung and well acted. He was at his best, vocally and histrionically, in the heart-broken bewilderment of Ruggero in the final act.
A crucial Thursday hockey night in Pittsburgh may have had an effect on the opera’s attendance, which wasn’t very large. The opera is well presented, allows highly gifted young singers performance experience, and is well worth the reasonably priced admission. Patronage of the remaining performances is highly recommended. For tickets, please visit Undercroft Opera.
The Production Staff for La Rondine –
Brian Gilling, Conductor; Seamus Ricci, Stage Director; Colin Farley, Chorus Master; Hyery Hwang, Vocal Coach; Karen Jeng Lin, Rehearsal Accompanist; Grace Lazos, Assistant Director and English surtitles; Shane Gillen, Assistant Conductor; Krista Ivan, Costumes; Michelle Engleman, Stage Manager; Garth Schafer, Lighting Design/Light Board Operator; Alexis Retcofsky, Light Board Operator; Neil Sederburg, Technical Director; Mary Beth Sederburg, Producer.