La Rondine, Orfeo ed Euridice, Thaïs, etc.

Grant Chu Covell

[February 2009.]

La Folia readers may have noticed an uptick in opera coverage. Stepping away from recent recordings to consider live performances, it’s indisputable that in my part of the world the Metropolitan Opera is the acme. While my beat is primarily contemporary music, operatic repertoire I’ve never seen is essentially new music, and over the past few months I’ve experienced several productions for the first time.

Chief among fresh discoveries is an opera the Met last produced in 1936. La Rondine (1917, rev. 1920) is a work of Puccini’s maturity, roughly contemporary with Il Tabarro whose librettist, Giuseppe Adami, it also shares. Critics and Puccini’s fans have been ambivalent towards The Swallow, which even by Puccini’s standards seems slushy and anomalous. World War I and Puccini’s alternate ending hadn’t provided it with a secure footing. However, this fresh effort anchored by the husband-and-wife team of Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu should firmly reestablish it in the repertoire. Does the world really need another Puccini opera? Yes, definitely, for the features which may have perplexed La Rondine’s first audiences are appreciated today.

The first act opens upon a soiree hosted by Rambaldo (a regal though enfeebled Samuel Ramey) and his mistress Magda (Gheorghiu). Prunier, a practical poet, begins a ballad which the romantic Magda completes. Ruggero (Alagna) arrives, fresh to Paris and eager to experience the city. The guests advise he visit Bullier’s restaurant and all depart except Magda, who afterwards changes her mind, dresses incognito, and heads towards Bullier’s. Prunier also returns, and we discover he and Magda’s maid, Lisette, are lovers. They too go to the restaurant. Act II takes place at Bullier’s, where Magda finds Ruggero. They talk and dance, and fall in love. When Prunier and Lisette arrive, the maid’s surprise at seeing her mistress is interrupted by Rambaldo’s appearance. Prunier tries to hide Ruggero, but Rambaldo sees Magda and demands an explanation. Magda replies she and Ruggero are in love and they leave to start a new life.

Act III opens on the Riviera. Magda and Ruggero have run out of money, but he has written to his family saying he has found happiness and plans to wed Magda and bring her home. Prunier and Lisette arrive, hot on the heels of Lisette’s opening night failure as a singer. Lisette begs to be Magda’s maid again, and Magda realizes she is not good enough for Ruggero and so returns to Rambaldo. This is an opera where no one dies, where the woman abandons the man (although her motives are quaint by today’s standards), and everything returns to how it was at the beginning.

There are bucketfuls of gorgeous waltzes and tunes, among them the second-act closer, “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso.” It’s wonderful Puccini, an intoxicating mix of schmaltz and modernist bubbles. Many passages could enliven a Disney movie or even sell shampoo. Puccini garnishes the score with clusters, strange doublings and pentatonicism. In Act I, when Prunier enumerates admirable women (Galetea, Berenice, Francesca, et al.), at a mention of Salome, Puccini inserts a motive from Strauss’ opera.

Sets and costumes conjured the Roaring Twenties, and a devoted Marco Armiliato conducted energetically. The evening I attended, New Year’s Eve, marked the Met’s introduction of Marius Brenciu who joined Lisette Oropesa as the secondary romantic pair. Their stage presence and energy nicely balanced the leading couple’s. It would appear that Alagna and Gheorghiu have been on a mission to resuscitate this opus: Their first La Rondine was in 1996 and an EMI release (7243 5 56338 2 8) appeared a year later.

Sure, it’s flimsier than most Puccini. Some might even judge this three-act trifle as trite. But let’s bear in mind that this is light comedy, and Puccini’s music rarely sounds so effervescent. I had not heard Alagna live before. From where I sat, his initial aria created a light echo effect, nor, throughout the evening, was he as robust as I expected. Alagna has more presence on the EMI set. In person Gheorghiu steals close to every scene.

* * *

This season’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) was astounding. As Orfeo, Stephanie Blythe completely inhabited the trouser rôle. Her command of the distraught widower pursuing his wife into the Underworld unfolded as if she were making the music up, so committed did she seem. Although Danielle de Niese as Euridice and Heidi Grant Murphy as Amor were very fine, they were clearly singers taking rôles, whereas, for about a hundred minutes, Orfeo actually occupied the stage.

Levine conducted. The overture suggests the serious minor-mode music which Mozart would write decades later. The day I heard Orfeo (1/24), the orchestra got off to a rocky start, attaining clarity by the first chorus. Mark Morris directed the production — ballet music is an integral part of Gluck’s score — and so the nymphs, shepherds and furies were represented by dancers. Isaac Mizrahi costumed the 90-member chorus, each portraying a different, fairly recognizable historical figure. If attention strayed, it was fun to play who’s who: Lincoln, Jimi Hendrix, Queen Elizabeth, Einstein, Ghandi, Moses, John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin, Henry VIII, Frederick Douglas, et al. Gluck was in there too (the online guide positions him between Rasputin and Susan Sontag).

Orfeo’s “Che farò senza Euridice” is of course the opera’s highpoint. Having won over the Furies and Shades with his musical prowess and the depth of his sorrow, Orfeo attempts to lead Euridice out of the Underworld. However, he succumbs to her pleas to gaze upon her, contrary to the gods’ stipulations. Euridice dies again, and the redoubled grief-stricken Orfeo sings his lament, perhaps the finest music Gluck wrote. Blythe was spectacular.

* * *

The week of La Rondine’s performance I also saw Massenet’s Thaïs (1894). The production was splendid, with Renée Fleming in the title rôle as the reforming courtesan and Thomas Hampson as the conflicted monk Athanaël. Apparently the Anatole France novel upon which the opera is based was intended to be a religious satire, which aspect Massenet seems to have downplayed. Then again, operas don’t convey satire well.

The action progresses quickly: Athanaël tells his Cenobite brethren, a similarly long-haired band of desert hermits, that God has commanded him to venture into the big, bad city of Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia) and save Thaïs’ depraved soul. Sure thing. As if his intentions were chaste from the get-go. Athanaël visits his old chum Nicias who negotiated a week of Thaïs’ companionship. The monk easily persuades a weary Thaïs to reform her ways and they tramp to a convent. Immediately, Athanaël feels remorse, and after several months of modest internal wrestling, returns to the convent to let Thaïs know that all this talk about salvation is hokum and that their unconsummated physical love would be far better for both. To no avail: A much-changed Thaïs approaches sainthood. While Athanaël pleads, she sees angels surrounded by heavenly light and promptly expires. Perhaps others may find this plot less absurd in these eminently superior modern times of ours. But since when is staged spectacle meant to be realistic?

Nearly everyone has heard the famous Méditation from Thaïs. I was eager to hear this confection in its context, as interlude between two scenes of Act II, when Thaïs decides to abandon her wanton life for one of penance. Massenet must have known he had hit pay dirt, for the Méditation reappears in several guises during the remainder of the opera. Honestly, I recall no other tunes from the three hours and 20 minutes. I remain astonished at Massenet’s modest technical skills and musical conservatism, and am not surprised I can’t recall much from the Werther and Manon, which I am sure I have seen. What must the other 30-plus operas be like?

Perhaps this Salome left a greater impression than I would have expected, but I saw parallels between it and Thaïs. Besides the similar epoch and depravity, both contain characters with unconsummated desires. Other similarities included curved sets (cisterns and houses), that Herod and Nicias were hosts who lost control of their guests, and the whole death / consummation / ecstasy theme.

The same week I took in La Rondine and Thaïs — I would live at an opera house if I could — I accompanied The World’s Greatest Magic Flute Fan to the Magic Flute. During the holiday season, the Met offers an abridged, continuous 10-scene version of the Mozart opera sung in English. Showing diligence that would most definitely have surprised his fellow first-graders, The World’s Greatest Magic Flute Fan studied the roster and immediately announced which singers were the same as the ones on the Met’s recently released DVD (The Metropolitan Opera HD Live 81135701197-3). This would in fact be TWGMFF’s second Magic Flute at the Met. The matinee’s audience included a great many children who beamed with delight as the chandeliers retracted into the ceiling prior to the opera’s start.

It still surprised me that the Met cuts the overture and begins directly with Tamino and the serpent. However, the overture appears on the DVD, revealing the singers backstage, getting ready. This time, I did not find Julie Taymor’s elaborate puppets as distracting. To the contrary, they are lithe and enchanting. (Are the puppeteer’s tri-corner hats meant to suggest Amadeus?) Presumably chosen to conjure mystery, the set’s aluminum squares and circles ornamented with bold, Egyptian glyphs reminded me of a 1980s discount clothing chain. Papageno (Rodion Pogossov) provided most of the afternoon’s comedy, and the kids loved it. Under Asher Fisch’s direction, the cast included Nicole Cabell as Pamina, Cyndia Sieden as Queen of the Night, Dimitri Pittas as Tamino, and Eric Owens as Sarastro.

That same day, TWGMFF had to compare what he had seen with all the other Magic Flutes on hand. It’s sublime music, so no one in the household minded. The Met’s DVD offers a stellar cast conducted by James Levine: Ying Huang as Pamina, Erika Miklósa as Queen of the Night, Matthew Polenzani as Tamino, Nathan Gunn as Papageno, and René Pape as Sarastro.