Imagine that a new work by Giacomo Puccini had been discovered. Opera houses the world over would fight for the rights to the first performance. The best singers would scramble to create the roles. Audiences would line up eagerly. It would be a sensation.
Surprise, such a work exists. Except this Puccini opera is not newly discovered, it is being rediscovered. After years of unwarranted neglect, La Rondine (The Swallow) may be finding a perch in the major opera houses. La Rondine (pronounced Ron-dee-nay) is not yet a repertory staple. But in 1984 the New York City Opera staged a bubbly version that revealed the many charms of the seductive score. Now in Chicago, the renascent Lyric Opera is proving that treated with respect, the little bird can soar.
Conceived in 1913 as a Viennese operetta but developed at Puccini's insistence into a more operatic work, La Rondine has never been considered the equal of such tearjerkers as La Bohème or Madama Butterfly. Its resemblances to both Bohème and Verdi's La Traviata are held against it, as are its less serious origins. "It has proved the weakest of Puccini's works, uneasily hovering between opera and operetta and devoid of striking lyrical melody," wrote Puccini Scholar Mosco Carner in a typical critical assessment.
At first the opera does appear to be something of a rewrite. The story certainly recalls La Traviata: Parisian Courtesan Magda meets innocent Country Boy Ruggero, loves him and then, out of concern for his family's honor, leaves him. And as in La Bohème, there is a joyous café scene and a secondary pair of quarrelsome lovers. Yet the feel of La Rondine is very different, for Magda is a more worldly-wise heroine than either Violetta or Mimi. Her affair with Ruggero is a self-deluding attempt to recapture a lost moment from her youth, and in the last act, she realizes she has been acting out a fantasy, not conducting a love affair. The opera comes to a close with her wistful sigh floating high above the orchestra. Despite its frivolous trappings, La Rondine has a core of cynicism and bears about as much relation to Lehar as Ravel's fierce La Valse does to the waltzes of Johann Strauss.
The score is the work of a master. The irresistible Doretta's Dream, the opera's most famous aria, is sung first by the poet Prunier, a sadder, wiser Rodolfo, whose prominence at the opera's beginning sets the tone for what is to come. The gradual transformation of the lovers' duet into a full-blown chorus in the second act is a magical lyric moment. There is even wit: a sly quote from Richard Strauss's Salome when Prunier describes his ideal woman, and a love duet that deliberately recalls the end of the first act of La Bohème. The melodies are supple and strongly defined, and there is none of the manipulative abuse of the heroine that coarsens, say, Butterfly.
Aside from a somewhat shaky performance from Rumanian-born Soprano Ileana Cotrubas, who sings Magda, the Lyric's handsome, glittering production is cast with young Americans. Originally presented in 1981 at Pisa's Teatro Comunale G. Verdi, it is directed by Giulio Chazalettes, who might have made more of Rondine's disillusioned subtext and in so doing brought out its richer texture. But as performers gradually realize the opera's possibilities, harder-edged interpretations will no doubt follow.