Caballero, conductor Tebar lift FGO’s uneven “Rondine”
For many South Florida opera fans who may have attended a dozen performances of Rigoletto, Carmen and La Traviata, Saturday night offered the first opportunity ever to attend a Miami production of Puccini’s La Rondine.
This 1917 work, which tells the story of a kept Parisian woman’s rediscovery of romance, has long dwelt in the operatic attic as the weakest of the Italian master’s mature works. But despite an insubstantial plot, a flimsy last act and a tone that wavers uneasily between comedy and drama, Rondine is rich in affecting vocal and orchestral music, and Florida Grand Opera deserves credit for passing up the easy ticket sales of the more popular Puccini works to present this rarity.
The performance at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was highly uneven, marred by a weak male lead and stiff stage direction. But Elizabeth Caballero, the popular Miami soprano, gave a worthy performance in the leading role of Magda, and most impressive of all was the playing of the orchestra under Ramon Tebar, making his debut as FGO music director.
While excellent performances by the FGO orchestra have become routine, this performance under the young Spanish conductor stood out for the delicacy and transparency of the textures he drew from the ensemble. La Rondine has many great passages of classic Puccini writing, and in these moments the orchestra under Tebar shone — the ascending strings and winds as Magda receives a gift of pearls, the delicate violin passage as she considers returning to the nightclub where she first found love, and the sighing strings as Ruggero enters with a letter from his mother.
Caballero gave the best vocal performance of the evening, although there were some shaky moments. In Act 1, the opera’s most celebrated aria, Chi il bel sogno di Doretta, was marred by effortful high notes that should float softly from the stage. But through the rest of the performance hers was the only first-class voice on stage — aside from Corinne Winters in the less demanding role of Lisette. Caballero brought great warmth and emotion to the role, especially in the final act as she expressed the turmoil going through her mind over whether to tell Ruggero about her past. She read the letter from his mother in a voice full of luster and humanity and brought desperate determination as she tells Ruggero she must leave him.
As Ruggero, the newcomer to Paris with whom Magda falls in love, the young Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro just was not up to the vocal qualities of a romantic leading man. His voice was drab and colorless, with a weak top and he offered none of the urgency, intensity or warmth that could make a plausible operatic hero. His aria Parigi è la città dei desideri, an ode to the thrills of arriving in the big city, was tonally unsteady and lacked any sense of the excitement the words were supposed to convey.
The role of Magda’s maid Lisette is a stock one in opera — the pert working-class woman whose energy and street smarts allow her to outmaneuver her social superiors. The American soprano Corinne Winters, the 2010 first-place winner in the Palm Beach Opera Vocal Competition, made the most of the role, bringing a dynamism to the part that stood out amid the upper-class languor that prevailed on stage. When she stormed into the conversation to defend her hometown of Paris or described the evening in which she bombed as an actress, she displayed a vocal power and finesse that made you wish this was a larger role.
The scenery from New York City Opera updates the setting from the mid-19th century to the 1920s, which meant flapper hairstyles and sleek Art Deco touches in the Parisian salon in which the opera opens. The update had the effect of making the sentiments of the final scene, in which Ruggero receives permission from his mother to marry and Magda turns him down because she’s no longer “pure,” seem particularly creaky and anachronistic.
But in general the update worked, with particularly effective third act scenery for the French Riviera, dominated by a blue Mediterranean sky. The women’s dresses may well have been authentic for the period, but these drab, faded-looking draperies were some of the least flattering female costumes you’re going to see outside of Wagner. Apart from Winters’ live-wire Lisette, none of the acting rose above the second rate, with affected gestures that just didn’t work for a setting of Parisian sophisticates.
As the poet Prunier, the tenor Daniel Shirley brought a small but attractive voice to the role, one that would have made a more convincing Ruggero than the one who actually had that job. As Rambaldo, Magda’s wealthy lover, Craig Colclough displayed a sonorous bass-baritone, grumbling anti-romantic sentiments as he read the newspaper or lumbered around the stage. Magda’s three cynical friends Yvette, Bianca and Suzy, were winningly portrayed by Brittany Ann Reneé Robinson, Lacy Sauter and Courtney McKeown, all strong singers whose voices blended well with the superb work in the orchestra.
Although this wasn’t FGO’s finest overall production in the past couple years, the company deserves the gratitude of opera fans for allowing them to hear an undeservedly neglected work. La Rondine is Tebar’s only opera this season, but next season he is expected to lead at least two. It appears that for the first time in many years, FGO’s musical direction is in good hands.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine runs through Feb. 4 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. fgo.org; 800-741-1010
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Sun Jan 22, 2012
at 1:48 pm