The intimacy of the black box, makeshift theater with a full cast and chorus and orchestra seems to be a combination that would heighten Puccini’s mastery of unforgettable melodies and lush harmonies. Indeed that is what the performance of La Rondine, by Boston Conservatory’s opera program on February 4 at Channel Center, somewhat did. That is, until one actually reads the program notes, the English supertitles, and the performance history. La Rondine is Puccini’s most neglected work. And this neglect seems to come from its very ordinariness––molto verismo––if you will. In response to the historical criticisms of the opera having little high drama and a weak plot, director Kirsten Z. Cairns noted that “La Rondine works so well precisely because it is dramatically so ordinary.” Although skeptical—relying on performance history—I was ready to accept this comment.
The overall performance was adequate. The cast seemed to bring a certain enthusiasm and devotion to the work, heightened by the intimate setting of the black box. Ultimately, however, the great pains that were taken by the cast to give La Rondine its due respect ended up being the downfall of the show. But for this I blame Puccini and his entourage of librettists (A.M. Willner, Heinz Reichert and Giuseppe Adam). The weak plot of nostalgic yearning for spontaneous romance without the treachery and blood and guts cannot be heightened by Puccini’s masterful compositional hand. The problem is that the music attempts to elicit the dramatic effects that one finds in Madama Butterfly or La Bohème without the plot or lyrics to sustain the music. Overall, it seemed as if the entire cast was dedicated to pull the drama out of the opera as much as possible. However, some surprising original moments seemed to go beyond the pedestrian script. Prunier the artist/poet (played by Patrick Massey) sang of love and romance as a new trend (especially among Parisians) with a nuanced irony and self-consciousness that leaped out of the music and lyrics. In the second act, at Bruiller’s night club in Paris, the men’s chorus did a delightful job of fawning over Magda (the lead female role, played by Mary Johnston). She gave the stand-out performance of the night. Despite her weak characterization of a role that was already weak before the show began, her voice soared in her upper register and was clear and declamatory in the tessitura. Johnston was the only vocalist who had the ability to stay with and, at times, rise above the dramatic orchestral swells.
So, if you want high drama and an intriguing plot, La Rondine is not the right opera. But, if you want to just listen to mostly beautiful music and enjoy it intimately, it might just work out, but not without following these suggestions: Don’t read up on the plot of the opera, don’t read the program notes, and don’t even think about reading the English supertitles. I guess the beauty of opera is that there is a potential for the music to stand on its own, separated from the quotidian libretto.