La rondine (The swallow) brings Opera North’s autumn tour to a glamourous close at The Lowry.
It is the third production from the company performed at Salford this week as part of its Green Season. This means all aspects of the shows have been guided by new sustainability benchmarks for theatre as set out in the Theatre Green Book, with some sharing of sets and props across the three operas and all costumes either sourced from previous productions or acquired second-hand.
You might assume from this that the result would be a more concert-staged, paring back. But the inventiveness of the whole team has delivered a lavish production that looks as dreamy as Puccini’s soaring score.
The opportunity to watch this opera live is also a treat, as it is probably, for different reasons, Puccini’s least-regularly performed mature work. First staged in 1917 during World War I it was thought a little frivolous for the times. It is not easily categorised operatically because it fits neither firmly into comedy nor tragedy. Puccini also seemed less satisfied with it, making repeated alterations so it’s hard to identify a definitive version of the work.
That said, Sir Richard Mantle, Opera North’s outgoing General Director/CEO cites the work in his programme notes as one of his ‘Top 10’ personal favourite operas. And this near perfect production in his final season makes it easy to see why that is so.
This is only Opera North’s second production of La rondine and, bar small vocal alterations, reflects Puccini’s original 1917 version. Director James Hurley sets the action in 1930s Paris, giving it romantic edge from the start. Designer Leslie Travers uses moving steel frameworks to create a layered effect and give a fluid sense of large set changes without the need for them. An enormous vase of pink flowers provides a burst of colour, and the costumes, with metallic lame fabrics and shimmering sequins inspired by early Hollywood, transport us back to glamourous café society, where the chorus dance and busy themselves in this bustling world – it looks simply gorgeous.
The story is a light-hearted variant of Verdi’s La traviata. Courtesan, Magda leaves her worldly comfort as mistress of wealthy banker, Rambaldo to follow her heart with young Ruggero. Both Magda and her maid, Lisette disguise themselves to enjoy life in Paris’ fashionable café Bullier’s and pursue true love. Cupid sweeps both women in different directions on a whirlwind of passion, but how long can these mismatched couples, survive living in the shadows?
Not being a true tragedy there is nothing more at stake here than heartache, yet the cast make us feel the rollercoaster of their journey from joyful abandon to the physical ache of a broken love affair.
Galina Averina, making her Opera North debut, brings strength and wit to Magda. Sébastien Guèze, previously seen as Rodolfo in La bohème and Don José for Opera North is beautifully mismatched as the naïve lovestruck, Ruggero. Tenor, Elgan Llyˆr Thomas (making his Opera North debut as Poet Prunier) and Claire Lees (Lisette) bounce off each other with fabulous comic timing in the romantic subplot, while baritone, Philip Smith, also in his first performance for Opera North makes an impressive impact as sugar daddy, Rambaldo.
The full cast ‘Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso’ in Act II is truly transporting as conductor Kerem Hasan guides the orchestra with soaring precision on this rich flight of fancy. It is true escapism in which, I suspect, even the hardest hearts will take flight.
Opera North La Rondine was at The Lowry, Salford on 17 November 2023. Opera North is performing at The Lowry until 18 November.