About the Opera
For American audiences Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is last in the long line of Italian opera composers that began with Jacopo Perri in 1600 when he premiered the very first opera, Euridice. For many Americans, Puccini is not only the last significant Italian opera composer, he is their absolute favorite. While most would likely agree that Verdi is the most respected and Rossini is perhaps the most entertaining, Puccini wins our hearts. He leaves us breathless with Tosca and Turandot, wringing out our handkerchiefs with Suor Angelica, chuckling with Gianni Schicchi, and heartbroken with La bohème and Madama Butterfly. We are genuinely moved by Puccini operas, and though he is America’s favorite Italian composer, over the decades since his death we have neglected three of his operas, Le villi, Edgar, and La Rondine.
Puccini’s first and second operas, Le villi and Edgar, may not merit professional productions, but La Rondine certainly deserves to be heard. This opera, about a summer romance, does not end in searing fury like Tosca or a tragic suicide like Butterfly, or a bitter, bitter death like La bohème; like Turandot, it has a kinder conclusion. La Rondine has all the hallmarks of Puccini at his very best: it overflows with an unquenchable desire for joy, it is brimming with vitality and heartfelt passion, and it boasts Puccini’s fluid, brilliant, even ecstatic musical language. However, even before its world premiere this opera was dealt a bad hand.
Puccini hated the very idea of war, and on hearing of the declaration of The Great War he is reported* to have shouted, “War, war! It is the end of civilization!” On that same day, Puccini was horrified to receive a telegram from his son Antonio announcing that he had joined the armed forces, and to make it even worse, Puccini was in the throes of a love affair with a German countess who suddenly found herself an enemy alien and was forced to leave Italy. During this time of clamorous confusion Puccini was in the midst of a commission from the Viennese Carltheatre for La Rondine. Of course, there was no possibility of executing a contract with enemy Austrians and the premiere of La Rondine would not take place in Vienna.
During the course of the war Puccini experienced a precipitous fall from grace. He would not support this war with his words or his money, and he would not take part in fundraising efforts to support the conflict. He lost many of his best friends, including Arturo Toscanini. Artists from England, France, and Italy, as well as the international press, reviled his operas. After the war much was forgiven as Puccini donated a great deal of money for the care of injured veterans, but La Rondine didn’t premiere after the war, that opening took place even before the United States entered the conflict.
Puccini finished La Rondine in October of 1915, as the war raged on, but his publisher, Ricordi, refused to publish the opera for a number of complicated reasons, not least that the commission was from an Austrian theatre, so Puccini turned to Casa Sonzogno, Ricordi’s rival publishing house. Sonzogno published La Rondine and sold the world premiere rights to Monte Carlo, a neutral state, and the premiere took place on March 27, 1917.
The cast was impressive, featuring Tito Schipa as Ruggero and Gilda Dalla Rizza as Magda. Dalla Rizza was so impressive that she became Puccini’s favored soprano for whom he wrote several more roles, including Suor Angelica and Liù, and she became known as the Eleonora Duse of opera. Excellent casting aside, upon its premiere La Rondine was attacked as an “enemy opera” by French newspapers, which made it impossible for other companies to take up the work. Puccini’s defense, that the opera was set in France and written in Italian by an Italian librettist, Giuseppe Adami, that the composer was Italian, and that the publisher was an Italian firm, fell on deaf ears. La Rondine was off to a bad start. However, that did not prevent the opera from traveling abroad, and by May it was seen in Buenos Aires to much success. It was next produced in Bologna and then the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan in October. Vienna did not see La Rondine until 1920, but Puccini was not happy with the quality of the production. Puccini would be dead before the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala would mount the work.
One of Puccini’s stated goals for this project was to write a romantic comedy in the style of Der Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss), which premiered in 1911 and was enormously successful, establishing Strauss as a leading opera composer (his earlier operas, Salome and Elektra, were shocking to many). While Puccini’s score does reflect the high gloss of Der Rosenkavalier, as well as its waltzes and conversational moments, what impresses is Puccini’s unmistakable musical language that is unabashedly influenced by the French impressionists, the oriental gestures of Butterfly, and the mayhem of the Café Momus scene in La bohème.
Adami’s libretto, while filled with quick wit and surprising turns of phrase, especially in Act I, also gives vent to lively street talk and very romantic expressions of high-flying love poetry in Acts II and III. Puccini’s conversational tone in much of the opera, while not surprising for Puccini who exercises this kind of intimate exchange in most of his operas, takes the natural flow of language to a new level in La Rondine. The contrast between banter and impassioned melody emphasizes both, and may be a trick he learned from Strauss, as Rosenkavalier exhibits this same device that heightens the high moments by contrasting them with more subdued moments of conversation. This is particularly effective in communicating to the audience in a subtle way the deep unhappiness of Magda in her bought-and-paid-for relationship with the financier Rambaldo.
About a decade ago a Covent Garden production of La Rondine toured the United States (San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera), and was simulcast internationally by the Met, but there have also been charming productions by Teatro La Fenice (Venice) and the Washington National Opera (D.C.), among others, that have clearly shown us that La Rondine merits a place in the international repertoire.
*Puccini, a Biography, Mary Jane Phillips—Matz
Courtesy of Larry Hancock, Opera San José