Giuseppe Filianoti as Ruggero and Kristine Opolais as Magda in Puccini's "La Rondine."
Taken during the rehearsal on January 8, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )
Giacomo Puccini is one of the best known composers in the opera world. His great operas are venerated for their melodic abundance and their ability to elicit emotional catharsis and devastation at will. Practically every single one of Puccini's mature works is a repertoire staple, but "La Rondine" has somehow managed to remain out of this group for almost its entire lifespan. The Metropolitan Opera revived the opera in 2008 in a new production by Nicolas Joël; the last time the noted company had presented the opera before that was in 1936. The opera was brought back once more on Friday Jan. 11 in a performance that made a tremendous case for more consistent presentations of this gorgeous work.
For the last two weeks, the Met Opera has been busy promoting the debut of Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais in the role of Magda, a woman living with a wealthy man who leaves this lifestyle to make her romantic fantasy a reality. At just 33-years of age, Opolais is a fully mature artist who possesses a magnificent instrument and commands the stage elegantly. Her sound is dark, heavy, but potent and full of lush colors. Her Magda is a mature woman from the start to the end of the work. There was a reserved, even proper, manner about her physical interactions that translated into her singing. As she conversed with her friends about a past romantic episode with a mysterious man, there was a strong sense of control in every word and every phrase. However, this Magda seems to hate her current way of life and is tired of her suffocating environment; she seems to want a new emotional experience that has been lacking for her with Rambaldo. During the famous "Chi il bel sogno Di Doretta" Opolais caressed every phrase; her voice floated with disembodied quality in its upper register which added to the dream-like quality of the aria. As she sang the narrative that describes her love affair, there were hints of emotional yearning that Magda seemed to be holding back. Finally, Puccini's music bursts into a lush ray of melodic sunshine and Opolais' Magda let loose all the passions she had been repressing; it turned into a defining moment for the character. In the second act, Opolais' Magda brought a more coquettish quality as she flirted with Giuseppe Filianoti's Ruggero and her voice had a lighter quality to it; almost as if expressing Magda's sense of relief and freedom in this new life.
The third act, which represents the emotional center of the work, saw the Magda from Act 1 make her return. During her brief moment in this act "Che Più dirgli? Che fare?," Magda ponders on whether she can break her lover's heart. Opolais utilized all of her vocal resources; her voice beamed with cries of desperation through Puccini's orchestral outbursts as she declared that she would not tell him. During the final duet with Filianoti, Opolais reasserted her control, but it was clear that she was holding back her true feelings; the moment was so real I felt like she would give into her love for him at any moment. Her inner battle and his powerful love for her made the final scene a heartbreaking experience.
Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti had tremendous run of "La Clemenza di Tito" in November, but his performance in Friday's "Rondine" was among the best I have heard him deliver on the Met's stage. The 39-year old tenor (he was celebrating his birthday during this performance) possesses a bright sunny sound one usually associates with Italian singing. More importantly, Filianoti sculpts phrases like few others do these days; his legato is elegant and refined and his singing is always brimming with intensity and passion. The moment his Ruggero came on stage, it was clear that this was an inexperienced young man coming out into the world for the first time. At many times it felt as if Opolais' mature Magda was a few years older than Filianoti's Ruggero and this added an almost tragic inevitability to the opera's conclusion. Filianoti came on stage with a mustache that almost reminded one of Charlie Chaplin, his eyes wide open as he looked about the lavish home of Magda as if he had never seen such riches in his life. As he delivered his aria "Parigi! È la città dei desideri!" he sang with boyish enthusiasm and even added a comic touch as he signaled for the attention of the other characters onstage. Like Opolais' Magda, Filianoti's Ruggero is also coming to terms with emotions that he has maintained under control. When Magda asks him about love in the second act, Ruggero responds that if he were to love, it would be forever. Filianoti delivered this line with some initial aggressiveness as if he were repressing a bad love experience. But he slowly let his guard down and by the time he was singing the ensemble "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso," every phrase was embraced with tenderness that eventually blossomed into a thrilling High B flat at the apex of the phrase; he couldn't control this new passion that he is feeling.
Filianoti was even better in third act as his character delved deeper into fulfilling his romantic fantasy. At one point, he tells Magda that she is not his lover, she is love itself. Filianoti sang this phrase almost sotto voce, a quality that made the moment surreal. As Magda read his mother's letter, Filianoti's Ruggero enthusiastically uttered the words "Legge," as if he couldn't wait for her to get through the letter and accept his marriage proposal. As she continued reading, he walked to other side of the stage and closed his eyes, completely enraptured by the thought of living the rest of his life with her. It shattered the viewer to watch their ensuing duet in which he begs her to not leave him. His "Ma come puoi lasciarmi" was not delivered with complete emotional abandon initially. Prostrated before her, he begged delicately, almost trying to hold in emotions and reason with her. But when she knelt beside him and told him it was not possible, Filianoti let loose his emotions and his voice rang through the lush orchestration with full-fledged intensity. At the end, he slumped over in a chair, crying desperately and then fell to the floor; watching Filianoti's suffering coupled with his partner's desperate attempts to soothe him made the opera's finale one of the most wrenching moments I have witnessed at the Met.
The rest of the cast supplemented the two principals well. Marius Brenciu brought a beautiful light quality to the poet Prunier and sang soave phrases throughout the night. His lover Lisette was played by Anna Christy who brought a bright voice that contrasted wonderfully with Opolais' darker quality. Christy and Prunier provided the work with dynamic highlights that ranged from tenderness in their love duet at the end of Act 1 to irresistible comedy as they lashed out at each other during their third act argument.
It is a shame that conductor Ion Marin has not been at the Met in 10 years as he brought an insightful and ravishing account of Puccini's lavish score. The orchestra remained light and propulsive through the first two acts with some genuinely remarkable moments. At the end of the second act, the orchestra repeats the glorious melody from the ensemble "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso" while the lovers walk out of Bullier's. The sound he drew from the strings during this instant was ethereal and added a sublime, other-worldly quality to the experience of the two lovers on stage. During the third act, Lisette complains about the whistling and boos she heard during her failed theater performance; Puccini gives the winds dissonant interjections to signify this jeering. Marin's emphasis on this particular detail made the audience feel the same chills Lisette feels at the particular moment.
Joël's production received applause every single time the curtain came up and rightfully so. Ezio Frigerio's sets are elegant, colorful, and vibrant. The first act portrays Madga's lavish home; the second act represents the expansive Bullier's salon; and the third act represents Magda and Ruggero's Riviera dwelling. Every single set has columns that serve almost as a reminder of the firm social structures that Magda is running from. Each set becomes more and more colorful and energetic, but the columns become all the more present and the spaces become more compressed as they do. The production and Stephen Barlow's direction never interfered with the action on stage and the singers remained in focus for the duration of the performance; exactly how opera should be.
If you have read my other reviews, you will likely think that I am starting to sound like a broken record at this point. However, it is impossible to deny that the Met has put together another riveting and unforgettable revival with this season's "Rondine." The two principals Opolais and Filianoti bring dynamic and complex portrayals that make this one of the most dynamic and heart-breaking love stories to grace the great opera house in years.