Were La Rondine an IQ test, I’d be in trouble. It is considered “lesser” Puccini, even a touch embarrassing, but I love it. If Mozart is the great composer of unforced, mysterious, heart stopping pathos, then Puccini must be the not so great composer of aching nostalgia and sorrowing loss. 

La Rondine, despite a thin, derivative plot, becomes through its music, an almost profound work about disappointment bordering on despair, chances lost for good, rather like La Fanciulla del West. In Il Tabarro the passion to live enraptures Georgetta and Luigi joined by nostalgia for childhoods lived in the same neighborhood as they try and fail to snatch happiness against heavy odds. Suor Angelica endures much only to lose her chance to hold her child.

Even in the hilarious Gianni Schicchi the sorrow of loss wells up for a few minutes when all realize that if they are caught defiling Buoso’s will, they will face exile from their beloved Florence forever. I have long averred that in the noisy and nasty Turandot, the best scene is that of sincere, aching nostalgia shared by the “three masks” (and the pentatonic scales Puccini uses for the maid, Lisette in La Rondine, and his playing around with bitonality show up more emphatically in Turandot and there is a direct connection between Prunier’s reading of Magda’s hand in act one and the musical style of the Masks).

La Rondine owes a lot to Lehar (and there is a clever reference to The Merry Widow Waltz in it). He introduced Puccini to the librettist of his first hit, Der Graf von Luxemburg. They came up with a typical operetta story with elements borrowed from some classics, Lisette, the flirty aggressive maid, is like Adele in Die Fledermaus, and like Adele, she is given to lifting her mistress’ clothes and hats. Magda, an upper class courtesan, of a certain age although young looking, has a fling with a naïve boy from the Provinces who is taken in by her (Puccini might have thought of Jean in Massenet’s Sappho). It can’t last of course, and there is a bittersweet ending.

Musically, In Italian operas, a drinking song (a brindisi) is usually fast and either a solo or a duet, although the chorus might join in briefly. In Viennese operettas, though, slow drinking songs that develop into ensembles occur. Puccini seems to have had in mind the best of these, the “Brüderlein und Schwesterlein” ensemble from act two of Fledermaus. In La Rondine the center sequence of act two, the soaring brindisi, “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” becomes an elaborate ensemble.

As in most operettas dance rhythms play a large part, and since there was a Viennese influence, the waltz figures prominently. But, although the opera was set in the Second Empire (1870), Puccini adds dance rhythms of his own time, the two step, the foxtrot, the tango for example.

Initially, Die Schwalbe (the Swallow) as it was called was going to get its world premiere in Vienna and that version is more slender musically than the familiar one. But Puccini’s publisher, Tito Ricordi, (who he quietly loathed) refused to take the opera. Puccini heard that Tito (son of his great champion, Giulio) had described the opera as “bad Lehar”. Puccini’s Italian librettist Adami headed off a confrontation by assuring the composer that Tito was offended by not having been included in negotiations for the opera from the first. It’s the only Puccini opera published by Casa Sanzogno.

World War I broke out though and postponed the premiere, so Puccini oversaw the first performance of the far more filled out Italian version, La Rondine, in Monte Carlo in 1917. The opera was rapturously received there by audiences and reviewers. But Italian reviewers were not persuaded after the premiere at Bologna. The Vienna premiere (1920) was a success but not a hit. Puccini, as usual, kept tinkering and came up with a version with major changes but it wasn’t well received at Palermo and he abandoned that draft.

Just as he was starting to work on Turandot, Puccini tried another revision. The main complaint about the work from those who liked it generally was the weak third act. In this final revision Puccini and Adami rewrote the plot of act three. It’s clear that Magda’s “protector”, Rambaldo, still has his door open for her and Prunier the poet suggests that she return to her comfortable nest.

The letter Ruggero receives from his mother welcoming her forces her to realize that their liaison can’t really continue as a marriage and she tells the boy the truth about her life. He curses her. Her heart is broken but Prunier escorts her back to Rambaldo. Although this score exists (I own a copy) it has never been given and indeed despite the changes in details the music remains much the same, except for about six pages. Enmeshed in Turandot, Puccini seems to have lost interest.

The great joy at Curtis Opera Theater (celebrating the centenary of the opera’s world premiere) was hearing this beautifully made, infinitely clever (if not always thrillingly inspired) opera so wonderfully played. The small Perelman Theater (653 seats) helped. Puccini’s amazing instrumental touches and harmonic surprises were effortlessly and beautifully projected by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. It was not only a matter of clarity and skill but of the orchestra being inside the theatrical and emotional scenes of the opera. Their playing as soloists and as a group was highly expressive and full of intention.

This was due to Kensho Watanabe who offered the best Puccini conducting I’ve heard since—Kensho Watanabe conducted La Boheme some years ago! He has, given his youth, a remarkable grasp of Puccini’s manner and the ability to get the orchestra to go along with him second by second.

Puccini uses a “mosaic” construction. A long movement divides into smaller units that include dialog-like patter (parlando), a short interlude around singing, and then after a brief transition, a flowering into full lyric expansion. To see that these small units cohere and that climactic passages become inevitable in context is very difficult. Conducting as an art of deft, efficient transition is the point in Puccini and Watanabe has that down cold. There was no hauling the music around, no slowing those transitions, no blurring of the composer’s precise effects, but the constant sense of logical and enticing musical movement.

And as for the emotion of the piece, Watanabe was superb. He got playing full of precise feeling, there was relish in the way he handled the music. Even in the potentially wan final duet he was able to find exactly how to play the melody out (even though Puccini uses a rather cheap sequential style—the tune is repeated unvaried in higher keys) making it warmer and more moving than it has any right to be. He showed himself a master of rubato throughout the evening but never more than there, and he even dared modified portamenti. That is absolutely in style but no one does it today, but to the degree he did it was wonderful.

Otherwise this was very much a graduate school presentation, although one on a very high level musically. Curtis had apparently spent its budget on Dr. Atomic. This was a bare bones physical production (by Stephanie Havey) and the chorus although superbly prepared was smaller than ideal.

Havey updated the opera to the sixties even though the dance music and brief “pop” tunes would all have been very dated by then. Puccini’s own time would have made more sense. Her idea, expressed in a note, was that Magda is drawn to the sea. So, act two took place on a beach—in Paris in the ‘60’s? Chorus was in swimming attire and engaged in seaside antics—at night? The nightspot specified, Bullier, is a louche bar, where the pretty go to preen and maybe hook up.

And surely Magda finds herself as intoxicated by the high spirits of the inebriated crowd at the bar as by Ruggero. It’s also a place where the “hip” come to have a look—that’s why Prunier and Lisette and even Rambaldo show up. Would they go to a sandbar with a couple of tables? The last act was inoffensively staged except that Havey invented her own ending, giving Magda a diva moment downstage at the very end. But surely, Puccini’s idea is better. To the tolling of low bells, Magda, offstage, sings a very soft high A flat. It’s a perfect theater touch—very simply, within one texture on one solo note, the sorrow and loss of the leading character is caught unforgettably—after she has vanished.

Several supporting singers (such as Magda’s lady friends in act one) had impressive voices. The four leads on April 29 had promising timbres but did not clear all the hurdles Puccini placed in their way easily. Also, this opera depends on a kind of personal projection the young singers did not quite have.

But that didn’t matter. Under Watanabe with this level of musical preparation, La Rondine emerged as a fascinating and very moving work.

Photo: Andrew Bogard.