Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)

La rondine (1917)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano) – Magda
Roberto Alagna (tenor) – Ruggero
William Matteuzzi (tenor) – Prunier
Inva Mula (soprano) – Lisette
Alberto Rinaldi (baritone) – Rambaldo
Patrizia Biccire (soprano) – Yvette/Georgette
Patrizia Ciofi (soprano) – Bianca/Gabriella
Monica Bacelli (mezzo) – Suzy/Lolette
Toby Spence (tenor) – Gobin
Riccardo Simonetti (bass) – Périchaud
Enrico Fissore (bass) – Crébillon/Rabonier/Butler
London Voices, London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
Roberto Alagna (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano)
Le villi
Act Two, extracts
Roberto Alagna (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
rec. No 1, Studio, Abbey Road, London 1-10 August 1996
Bonus disc contains synopsis and libretto with translation
EMI CLASSICS 6407482 [66:16 + 54:19]

Hard on the heels of DVD from the Metropolitan Opera with the same central characters comes this fifteen-year-old CD-set, giving ample evidence that Gheorghiu and Alagna very early in their career fell in love with this opera. They have championed it ever since. It must be said that in the mid-1990s they were closer in age to their characters but it is interesting – and gratifying – to find that the difference in vocal quality is minimal. Alagna’s tone may be more golden here and he sings with commendable restraint and simplicity, while on the DVD he is a bit more hard-hitting. Gheorghiu is in creamiest voice and she characterizes well, especially in the last act. That said, seeing the two as well as hearing them brings us closer to the relationship and the drama. Also the Met set creates an atmosphere that the CD sound – atmospheric though the recording no doubt is – can’t convey. Generally speaking I find it unfair to compare DVDs and CDs. I believe that most listeners/viewers consume DVDs differently. I have found that I rarely return to DVDs very often – and on doing so invariably feel that they have lost something of their freshness. DVDs are like watching a small-scale live performance – which they almost always are anyway. I rarely go to the opera house to see the same production again unless it’s a revival with different singers.

I was, however, deeply touched by the Met production and have seen it a couple of times after the reviewing session; it grows on you. Still I almost certainly feel more at home with a sound-only recording to return to over and over again. The reason is that I started buying opera recordings long before I had opportunities to visit live opera regularly. Thus I created my one stage picture, my own production, helped by the libretto and the stage directions.

I have very vivid memories of the Met DVD and recall many of the quite magical scenes as visual highlights. However I felt more able to inhale the fragrance of Puccini’s music when not being distracted by the pictures. La rondine has yet to be established as an integral part of the Puccini cycle – and that’s a pity. His first two operas, Le villi and Edgar, have moments of genius but there he is still searching for his own language. This is settled in Manon Lescaut, and from then on he hones his writing to even more sublime heights. La rondine has been regarded as the ugly duckling, no doubt due to the elements of operetta – Franz Lehár’s spirit is discernible in many places. But it was rather the other way around: Lehár learnt his trade from Puccini and there are a lot of similarities between the two, harmonically and melodically. I really can’t accept that La rondine is looked down upon; this is in no sense ‘Lehár with water’. Everybody knows Chi il bel sogno di Doretta (CD 1 trs. 2-3), but there is much else worth everybody’s acquaintance. Listen to CD 1 tr. 7, Denaro! Nient’altro che denaro, where Gheorghiu caresses the beautiful melodies. Prunier and Lisette’s duet, near the end of Act I (CD 1 tr. 15) is out of Puccini’s top-drawer.

There is more to come in Act II. Nella dolce carezza, the duet with Magda and Ruggero (CD 1 tr. 20) is another magic moment, followed by an angelic chorus – not to mention the real showstopper Bevo al tuo fresco (CD 1 tr. 26) with the four main characters, growing to a magnificent ensemble with chorus. I wonder: did Erich Wolfgang Korngold hear this music or is it a coincidence? Nora’s Theme from his Hollywood film Of Human Bondage is very similar!

The third act is also a feast for the ear and with singing of this calibre the work can’t fail to make impression. And it’s not only Gheorghiu and Alagna that shine. Inva Mula and William Matteuzzi are an excellent second couple, well contrasted to Magda and Ruggero. Alberto Rinaldi is a sonorous and steady Rambaldo and out-sings Samuel Ramey on the Met DVD. Ramey is a good actor but of his once magnificent voice only remnants remained when the Met production was filmed. Several well known names in the supporting cast ensure that there are high standards of singing throughout.

London Voices sing gloriously and Antonio Pappano draws great playing from the LSO. They are heard on their own to good effect in two orchestral excerpts and a chorus from Le villi, where Alagna is in good form in a dramatic recitative followed by a melancholy aria. Accompanied by Maestro Pappano on the piano he also gives a nuanced reading of the song Morire?

The Met DVD and this CD reissue complement each other and admirers of La rondine or Gheorghiu/Alagna or both should grab the opportunity and get both. You can’t expect to hear/see the opera better done.

Göran Forsling

You can’t expect to hear/see the opera better done.