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I remember overhearing a conversation between two opera muckety-mucks during intermission at a Houston Grand Opera production of La Rondine some years ago. “Well,” scoffed one general director, “Puccini was obviously the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.” His colleague practically did a spit-take as he guffawed his assent.
At the timeit was my first real exposure to the operaI thought the remark pretty ludicrous. Granted, Puccini’s sole attempt at operetta writing seemed an uneasy mix of verismo breast-beating, Richard Straussian lushness, and Johann Straussian glitz. But Puccini was constitutionally incapable of writing an unbeautiful note and, even in one of his least remarkable scores, the composer spoke in the most seductive and natural way. Lloyd Webber, on the other hand, could only be counted on to sound like Puccini when he was stealing outright from him. (The most famous example is Lloyd Webber’s wholesale lifting of a big tune from La Fanciulla del West for the Big Tune in Phantom of the Opera.) Even less-than-profound Italian opera seemed a far cry from substanceless Broadway pap.
La Rondine, though, is one of those operas for which familiarity breeds a wee bit of contempt. For all conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s passionate advocacy on the podium, the piece shows its seams in Washington Opera’s lavish new production. The main plotcourtesan leaves wealthy cynic for callow youth who abandons her out of moral indignationis La Traviata without the TB or the reconciliation. The subplot throws in badly Xeroxed versions of characters from La Bohè#me and Die Fledermaus. Nowhere in evidence are the psychological complexities or romantic ambiguities of the contemporaneous Strauss-Hofmannstahl operas, nowhere the genuine effervescence of the Viennese or French light-opera traditions. The first two acts aim for wistful comedy but feel static. The last act takes itself much more seriously and, as if making up for lost time, tries to cover an opera-and-a-half’s worth of emotional terrain in one extended duet between the lovers. All the music has a heard-it-before quality, from the Butterfly/Turandot orientalisms incongruously dropped into Act 1 to the syrupy chorus at the center of Act 2 to the profusion of melodic fragments cut and pasted into the final scene. Maybe Lloyd Webber’s not that far off after all.
But it’s pretty damn gorgeous: Enveloping and eager to please, Rondine is like some decadent, musical spa weekend. WashOp’s production, co-produced with Los Angeles and Bonn, matches the score with drop-dead beautiful sets and costumes by Michael Scott. Every belle époque “i” is dotted and “t” crossed, and already rich colors become saturated when bathed by Joan Sullivan’s lights. (WashOp really should spring for a new scrim, though. The current one is pretty filthy.) Marta Domingo directs her singers in the swoony manner of the covers of romance novels, which, I suppose, are no more superficial than the libretto itself. But I wish she hadn’t resurrected Puccini’s third (ultimately posthumous) try at a finale, which has the courtesan Magda killing herself when her lover Ruggero leaves her. I know there’s some unwritten rule about the composer’s heroines getting treated like dirt and offing themselves to pretty music, but Rondine can’t take that kind of weight. Earlier versions of the last scene, suggesting that Magda survives sadder but wiser, made more sense. Likewise, the archival material inserted for Magda’s ex-lover Rambaldo gives his character a nifty cruel streak; but, once again, his assaulting of Magda feels heavy-handed in context.
Appealing voices sell La Rondine, and WashOp yet again casts from strength. Ainhoa Arteta’s Magda is big on lung power and glares a bit up top, but her creamy lower register and pianissimo singing, light as spun sugar, are just what the score needs. And she sounds good against the hefty, Italianate tenor of Marcus Haddock as Ruggero, though they make a less convincing pair of leads in the acting department. Arteta spends way too much of the opera looking glum and charmless, and Haddock lurches around the stage as though he’s got a few feet of lead pipe up his ass.
Much more engaging are Inva Mula’s perky powerhouse of a Lisette (Magda’s maid) and Richard Troxell as her eye-rolling poet boyfriend Prunier. (Troxell’s small-scale but beautiful lyric tenor and natural acting were among the better things in last fall’s Roméo et Juliette). With a solid supporting cast, the production shapes up into a nice little piece of pastry all around.
WashOp’s thrice-familiar Don Giovanni last surfaced with a string quartet in the pit during the company’s orchestra strike several years back. In its current incarnation, conductor Heinz Fricke seems intent on redressing that imbalance by filling the Opera House pit to bursting. For all the ballast, though, Act 1 emerged murky and vague on opening night, with soft attacks, spongy textures, and a surprising number of passages out of sync between singers and orchestra. Act 2, for whatever reason, sprang to life, showing considerably more vigor in phrasing and choice of tempos. The succession of inward-looking arias in the middle of the act benefited most from the added incisiveness.
The cast has a noticeably Met feel, with New York’s baritone du jour Dwayne Croft as Giovanni, mahogany-toned, virile, and faultless at connecting musical phrases with a genuine, old-school legato. It doesn’t hurt that he cuts a dapper figure onstage and pays enough attention to acting to avoid the histrionics so many Giovannis fall prey to. Another Met regular, Hei-Kyung Hong, sings the peasant girl Zerlina with her accustomed radiance and attention to character. (So why doesn’t this uncommonly gifted lyric soprano have the name recognition and recording career so many lesser artists have engineered?) Soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska makes a nice meal of Donna Elvirathe pluckiest of the ex-Mrs. Giovannis, who repeats on the Don like bad sausageher tightly wound tone and quick vibrato lending urgency to the role. Even more impressive is Dwayne’s brother, Richard Croft, singing the role of Don Ottavio (fiancé of Giovanni’s most recent rape victim, Donna Anna) with a near-perfect Mozart tenor and a focused ardor that makes the character less of a lapdog than usual. Rosendo Flores’ shaggy, nudgey, eternally flummoxed Leporello is also an asset, his voice close enough to Dwayne Croft’s to make this servant of Giovanni’s a plausible substitute for his master in Act 2’s mistaken-identity business.
As it turns out, it’s the more internationally recognized names that let the team down. How disappointing that one of the most imposing Wagnerian basses of recent years, Matthias Hölle, is sounding so dry and hollow these days. His portrayal of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, slain by Giovanni, is solid enough, but his waning vocal resources sap it of command. More disturbing is the work of Nina Rautio, whose Promising Young Talent status would suggest a voice less harsh and unwieldy. Miscast as Donna Anna, she generates some visceral excitement through the sheer size of her voice but assaults the music like a pile driver. There’s a certain tradition of casting heavier voices in this role, but Rautio seems unable to steer her Wagner-size soprano anywhere near Mozart country.
Don Giovanni, the headiest of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, offers not only some of opera’s best music but also a wealth of subtextual possibility. WashOp can usually be counted on to avoid anything smacking of moral ambiguity or reinventive thought, but this Don Giovanni is far from the most lame-brained around. The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production, if I remember it clearly from a dozen years ago, seemed more overcast with chiaroscuro shadows and hallucinatory imagery when new. In Matthew Lata’s revival/restaging, the crumbling black-and-white portals and scenic drops look more inviting (if less laden with mystery), though characters still appear and disappear evocatively behind scrims in the equivalent of cinematic dissolves. Directing with adequate storytelling sensewith the exception of a hopelessly tensionless opening sceneLata contents himself with broader strokes and repetitive patterns and leaves finer details up to our collective imaginations. Not the most visionary Don G., perhaps, but a fresher visual experience than most of the season thus far. CP