Chemistry Feels A Little Late (At Curtain Call) In Met Return To ‘Rondine’

Emily Pogorelc as Lisette, Bekhzod Davronov as Prunier, Jonathan Tetelman as Ruggero, and Angel Blue as Magda in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s ‘La rondine’ (Photos by Karen Almond / Met Opera)

NEW YORK — Though 1889’s Edgar awaits its turn, La rondine (The Swallow) was the last of Giacomo Puccini’s operas to reach the Metropolitan Opera — in 1928. By 1936, it had disappeared, only to re-alight in a colorful Jugendstil 2008 Nicholas Joël staging that the company has now revived, with pleasing though hardly definitive results. Three singers new to the Met offered accomplished debuts, but soprano Angel Blue and conductor Speranza Scappucci — both manifestly gifted artists — appeared to be slightly outside their comfort zones in this seemingly uncomplicated but very tricky work.

Puccini’s fortunes had long since been guaranteed by the worldwide successes of La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904), but the composer, who had known poverty, always had his eye on commercial viability. He noted the international craze for Franz Lehár’s “silver age” operettas that followed 1905’s Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) and accepted an offer to try his hand at the form, bonding with Lehár in the process. Plans for the Viennese world première were impeded by the outbreak of the First World War. The semi-operetta, partially reworked by Puccini to be more operatic (and in italiano), took wing in neutral Monaco in 1917.

Angel Blue made her role debut as Magda and Jonathan Tetelman his Met debut as Ruggero in the revival of ‘La rondine.’

For that première in the ornate Opéra de Monte-Carlo, war or no war, conductor Gino Marinuzzi secured four Italian leads to create Rondine. Two important verismo sopranos appeared: Gilda dalla Rizza (Puccini’s favorite performer, it seems) as the worldly Parisian courtesan Magda and Ines Maria Ferraris as Lisette, her maid — who, like Adèle in Die Fledermaus — wants to be an actress and liberally borrows her mistress’ clothes. Lyric tenor par excellence Tito Schipa was Ruggero, the naive kid from the country Magda falls for — the only role of consequence he created. A less historic tenor, Francesco Dominici sang the poet Prunier, a flamboyant aesthete who (secretly) romances and promotes Lisette.

The Met and U.S. première staging came only in 1928 and reappeared sporadically for eight years, with Lucrezia Bori — a very specific interpreter and vocal personality, as her live and studio recordings make clear — headlining all 18 shows. Her initial Ruggeros were world star Beniamino Gigli (who sounded much better than he looked) and then occasional Hollywood tenor Nino Martini (who looked better than he sounded).

One discusses appearances here because the operetta-like plot depends on some instant glamorous sizzle. In the Met’s current revival, the much balllyhooed Chilean-born, New Jersey-raised Jonathan Tetelman certainly supplied the good looks (tall, dark, handsome) that have made him a recording artist for Deutsche Grammophon, and he drew an animated, credible stage figure as the naive provincial. (At the staging’s 2008 première, short, dark, and handsome Roberto Alagna strutted around with such breezy assurance in Ruggero’s first-ever visit to a worldly upper-crust salon and Parisian nightclub as to make nonsense of the plot.)

Tetelman showed welcome idiomatic flair and an attractive but narrow-toned voice, well-managed except when he repeatedly changed gears at climaxes to emit loud top notes, spoiling the sense of line. Clearly an asset to the Met, he’d be ideal in one other Puccini role — Gianni Schicchi’s Rinuccio — but on this stage sounded a bit small-scale even for the more heavily orchestrated Rodolfo in Bohème, which like Tosca‘s Cavaradossi, he’s sung with success in smaller theaters. Later this season (April 26-May 11), he’ll appear at the Met opposite the equally ballyhooed and camera-ready Asmik Grigorian in Butterfly, which will tell us more.

Davronov, Pogorelc as the second couple: Charm, humor, sparks.

While sincere and generally pleasant to hear, Angel Blue did not convince as Magda. A fine, at times sumptuous lyric soprano, she’s been a very fine Met Mimì (2017), but this role (like Musetta in which the next year she proved underwhelming) needs more sheer star magnetism and considerably more specific and pointed textual phrasing.

Blue projected likability and wistfulness but there is much more to the character than that: not least the willingness to deceive Ruggero as to her identity and past. The part requires sharp definition, and she’s just not that kind of performer. And her voice has grown so that Puccini roles like Liù (which she will sing at the house April 11) and Suor Angelica seem more her métier (not to mention Verdi’s Alice Ford).

Though they both relaxed in Act Three, the only real chemistry Blue and Tetelman evidenced was at the curtain call. This may improve over the run, but having a conductor who had worked with the score before would have helped. Rondine frequently changes in tempo and key, and although Scappucci proved professional, her tendency to push ahead rarely illuminated its stops and starts. Blue — not much for floating her voice anyway — got little chance for rubato in Magda’s signature aria, “Ch’il bel sogno do Doretta.” Plus, despite Tetelman’s ardent launch, Scappucci powered through the work’s prize applause machine, Act Two’s quartet with chorus “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” which needs the operetta quality called Schwung: elastic momentum.

The other participants of that quartet, the “second couple” Lisette (Emily Pogorelc) and Prunier (Bekhzod Davronov), made pleasing Met bows. The Wisconsin soprano and the Uzbek tenor accessed charm and humor and threw sparks off one another. Pogorelc, a natural stage animal, projected her fresh voice very well, though she and the fluid but slender-voiced Davronov both faded away in their lowest notes. Some of the Met’s strongest supporting singers enlivened the ephemeral roles of Magda’s party guests, including the ever-reliable Christopher Job (Perichaud) and Paul Corona (Crebillon) plus the sonorous charm squad of Magdalena Kuzma (Yvette), Amanda Batista (Bianca) and — yet another promising debutant — Sun-Ly Pierce (Suzy). Ellie Dehn as the offstage Voice spelled luxury casting. The experienced Alfred Walker lent Magda’s “keeper” Rambaldo dignity and a steady bass-baritone.

Sonorous charm squad: Sun-Ly Pierce (Suzy), Angel Blue (Magda), Amanda Batista (Bianca), Magdalena Kuźma (Yvette).

As in previous performances of this Met staging, we see (unscripted) the Parisian Rambaldo onstage in the Riviera hotel for a final triptych tableau with the heartbroken Ruggero and the anguished, about-to-depart Magda — thus also denying us the opera’s brilliant stroke of having us hear the last sigh of this “swallow” offstage as she resumes her journey. Puccini also deployed emotionally key offstage floated soprano high notes in La bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica, so we can presume he wanted the musico-theatrical effect thus produced.

Franca Squarciapino’s Roaring ’20s costumes, Duane Schuler’s flattering lighting, and Ezio Frigerio’s tile, beam, and stained-glass décor still look good, though on the vast stage each of the three sets looked like what the third really is (a hotel lobby); Like the opera itself, the performance had enough virtues to recommend April 20’s Live in HD broadcast to those new to its pleasures.