One of the great tragedies of Puccini’s music is that, for much of its lifetime, it has been measured with a Germanic yardstick, often being reduced to suffer humiliation at the hands of Wagner’s most devoted followers—those who listen for cold, emotionless nuances. Of course, in academia it’s not quite as overtly bleak as all that; the perspective from which Italian opera is evaluated and analyzed has undergone a momentous shift in the last thirty years. Still, I wonder how much of that has really been genuine interest or academic altruism instead of career-advancing opportunism. Snippets of conversation caught amongst critics at this performance, for example, included laments about the overblown sentimentality of the music, it’s ineffective and poorly constructed plot, and facile arguments about whether it was an opera or operetta. Surely the most efficient way to gauge Puccini’s music is on its own terms: the best of his work is unabashedly bold emotional blackmail coupled with a firm sense of dramatic pacing that excites, pleasures, and rewards our indulgence with sheer hedonism. You could call this the Puccini Effect, if you like.
The manipulation works only when the music is performed well, of course. And the music’s emotional efficacy depends on the production: because of one theme’s ability to support different yet complimenting interpretations (what scholars call “polysemanticism”), Puccini’s music is one of the great inventions of the late nineteenth century, perfectly anticipating a hermeneutic revolution and complimenting a growing cultural sense of not only self-sadism, but also self-congratulation. Although the latter two come only when coupled with great performances, so, when the opera is taken as a whole on its own terms, it creates a hermeneutic circle that perpetuates itself as the performance continues. It’s also awfully nice to experience and indeed, simply listen to. Of course, this requires strong performers with tenacity and boldness equal to that of the composer, which, unfortunately, wasn’t really present at The Royal Opera’s recent production of La rondine.
Although the production is beautifully designed (with sets by Ezio Frigerio and costumes by Franca Squarciapino) and supports the most common interpretation of the opera--that the past is inescapable, especially (sexist academia alert!) for women—on the whole it lacks a sense of momentum: the sets dominate the action in a monolithic fashion, almost stifling the free-flowing and libidinous music. Adding to the problem was Nicolas Joël’s direction, often seemingly antithetical to motivated movement suggestive of decadent Belle-Époque Paris.
Our self-perpetuating circle of hermeneutic hedonism was certainly kinked by Angela Gheorghiu’s Magda; she gave a physically active performance but did not quite meet expectations vocally. There was a generous amount of parlando and not enough legato for a diva who has made a name for herself singing Puccini. Her two arias, “Chi il bel sogno” and “Ore dolci e divine”—the former the opera’s most famous due to its healthy life as a recital piece—could have been better executed in terms of textual nuance and indeed subtlety of vocalism. Her best moment was her final duet with Castronovo, which was vocally right on the mark and much inspired. Still, where was the passion, the fire and commitment that makes her Tosca so thrilling? Magda is a complex character with at least the former two hidden in her vocal lines; the trick to convey them both under a misleading blanket of calm. As far as commitment goes, more of that should have come from Gheorghiu.
Making an anticipated return was American tenor Charles Castronovo, who sang a rousing Tamino earlier this year. As a point of reference, I was somewhat unsure that I was listening to the same singer. As Tamino, Castronovo had a pointed and clarion tone that rang through the house. As Ruggero, his role debut, he was covering the sound far more often and, from the slight strain in this voice, apparently stretching himself to the limits. To his credit (or discredit, depending on your point of view) the dashing tenor sounded at times like a young Kauffman; fine if this is being produced naturally, not-so-fine if it is being forced. The lack of direction reared its head again: Castronovo often didn’t have clear motivation for moving and occasionally made awkward arm gestures. Vocally, however, placing these qualms aside, he was admittedly stunning at points; he had the very quality Gheorghiu lacked: fervent commitment.
The smaller parts were actually all played with verve: Sabina Puértolas was a boldly coquettish Lisette who had fantastic chemistry (much stronger than the leading couple’s) with Edgaras Montvidas’s Prunier, sung with strength and clarity of tone that Castronovo might have learned from. Holding down the lower end of the staff as Rimbaldo was Pietro Spagnoli, whose commanding and solid baritone was often thrilling.
Marco Armilato conducted a colorful and brisk performance, though one would’ve have like slightly more sentimental bend from the strings, especially during Act II. The Royal Opera Chorus sang convincingly and populated the stage during the scenes at Bullier’s very well, perhaps this production's strongest moment.
So what can we take away from this? Although these observations about Puccini are insightful (and intellectual copyrighted), the most important message here is to audiences, and, by extension, critics. Trust is everything, and if you don’t fully understand where a reviewer is coming from or what their background it, you probably shouldn’t be reading their review. Likewise, if a critic is going to criticize a production, then they criticize the music, and if they criticize the music, they should be doing so from a better, more Italian perspective rather than a German one, and, finally, should also recognize the sheer pleasure—plasir du texte, if you like—of experiencing Puccini. Otherwise they have no business reviewing Italian opera, especially Puccini and especially describing what that experience means without having the honesty to reveal their preconceived ideas publicly. No matter though, I hear Covent Garden will be soon be releasing Wagner’s Ring on DVD.
Photos: Royal Opera House