Puccini’s La Rondine (the swallow) is, true to its title, a curious bird: not quite operetta and not quite grand opera, with few of the instantly excerptable set pieces of his more famous creations. The plot is a hybrid too: a cousin to La Traviata but minus its redemptive third act, and with a servant subplot redolent of Die Fledermaus.
Veering between comedy and tragedy, it culminates in one of the composer’s uneasiest endings, when the courtesan Magda is denied not just a happy ending but also the more familiar Puccinian option of a cathartic death. Determined that her own past will bring ruin to her unworldly lover Ruggero, she leaves him bereft – returning miserably to the gilded cage she has spent the entire opera striving to escape.
Persuasively updated to the late 1920s but otherwise left untampered with, James Hurley’s new staging for Opera North (the third and final in its Green Season) finds its opulence not in Leslie Travers’ cleverly engineered sets, which are based on the same industrial steel framework seen in the season’s previous operas, but in Gabrielle Dalton’s delectable costumes, Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill’s dreamy Hollywood light palette, and above all in the tenderly drawn romance of its two leads.
As jaded-before-her-time Magda and doe-eyed Ruggero, soprano Galina Averina and tenor Sébastien Guèze are precisely as mismatched as they ought to be. Her dark-hued voice and measured elegance act as both contrast and complement to his unabashedly romantic, open-throated sound and puppy dog demeanour. There is chemistry in their differences, but a perpetual reminder, too, that those differences will be their undoing. Claire Lees’s pearly-voiced maid Lisette and Elgan Llŷr Thomas’s suave Prunier fulfil their roles as comic counterpoint with similar aplomb, while baritone Philip Smith is suitably patrician, if rather underused, as Magda’s wealthy protector Rambaldo. The Green Season’s sustainable approach extends to casting here, too, with the majority of supporting roles drawn from Opera North’s exemplary chorus.
Guided lovingly by Kerem Hasan in his company debut, the orchestra of Opera North sighs and swoons its way winningly through Puccini’s score, which despite all that sets it apart from his other mature work, is still utterly recognisable as his, with flashes here and there of Butterfly, Bohème and Manon Lescaut – not to mention a cheeky Salome quotation.
Opera North presented its first production of La Rondine in 1994, the same year that general director Richard Mantle, who retires this year, joined the company. How fitting, then, that the opera which he cites in his introductory programme note as one of his personal Top 10 should fly home again to mark his departure – and do it with such style.