It is a known fact that in summer, I only attend events in my habitual haunts of Nice, Antibes, St. Paul de Vence and Milan. However, when our coquine doyenne begged on her knees (à la Gencer in Alceste), I accepted the assignment to review Martina Arroyo Foundation’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine

A one month [short] notice was not enough to get ready for the young Countess with trademark long auburn hair (yours faithfully) nevertheless I put together a vintage crème Valentino ensemble with high heel Chanel slippers, loosely wrapped my hair with a faux diamond hair clip (from eBay) and took the limo (a.k.a. #6 train) to Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College… And I’m so glad I did.

La Arroyo needs no introduction. Delightfully funny, elegantly skilled and blessed with a stupendous voice, she is a living legend. She was in the audience in high spirit as always. The mission of The Martina Arroyo Foundation is to prepare and counsel young singers in the interpretation of complete operatic roles for public performance.

The Foundation guides each singer in the preparation of an entire operatic role through a formal educational process that includes the background of the drama, the historical perspective, the psychological motivation of each character, and language proficiency. Besides La Rondine this year, the foundation also produced a fine Don Giovanni.

La Rondine’s backcloth is Paris where Magda (the swallow of the opera’s title, because she will fly south to find happiness) is the mistress of the banker Rambaldo. When she meets the young innocent Ruggero, she falls in love. The couple set up house in Nice, but Magda soon realizes that, in the world’s eyes, her past makes her unworthy of Ruggero’s love. Where the realization might drive another Puccini heroine to suicide, Magda simply walks out of his life.

La Rondine is essentially a one-woman show. Even the tenor does not have a full aria. The cast I saw on Sunday July 17th was lead by exquisite soprano Clara Heikyung Yu. Like  the rest of the cast she began nervously, over-calculating  “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta.” I don’t blame her since Puccini does not give a warm-up for his soprano. As the opera progressed, Yu gave the best singing of the day, especially on the grand ensemble of Act II at bullier and a full commitment/full throttle Act III. I love my Puccini women spinto, and Yu’s voice sits a little too high for this part but still, she gave a mesmerizing performance and got the biggest applause.

As Ruggero, lyric tenor Young Chul Park matched his soprano to a tee. Gorgeous tenor voice, a hesitating start, fully opened by the last act. I just named him Carreras Jr. for the simple fact that he was almost incapable of opening his mouth without looking at the maestro. He and Ms. Yu both need work on their acting skills, though presumably this program focuses mainly on the singing, with staging a secondary priority.

In secondary parts, the baritenor Jonathan Morales as Prunier impressed the audience with his acting and unique voice, while coloratura soprano Katelyn Parker inhabited her part as Lisette. Our Rambaldo was Andre Courville who has such a huge bass instrument one only wishes to be matched by acting. A special mention goes to Jasmine Thomas who, with a very small part, impressed me with the clarity of her tone as Gabriele.

The chorus gives a satisfying job, while maestro Nicholas Fox, comparable to Yannick Nézet-Séguin both in stature and taste in brisk tempi, coaxed a truly outstanding and energetic performance from his superb orchestra. Honestly, they exceeded my expectation. The production, directed by Joseph Bascetta offered minimal but sufficient period decors and costumes, not to mention BYOS (bring your own shoes, some of them very amazingly modern.)

La Rondine is considered by many as “light” Puccini, a “comédie de salon,” yet there is a continuous smoky melancholy underlining the romanticism. While “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” may be the showstopper, the whole opera is a delight, a vocal symphony. This is a piece that, without proper direction can be easily sink to the level of a bad sitcom episode.  Martina Arroyo Foundation’s production under their “Prelude to Performance” program does just the opposite—and truly shines.