Unless you have an undying Cedolins fetish -- OC doesn't, as she finds Cedolins correct, attractive, and with a good dose of charisma but essentially uninspiring -- or a penchant for operas with boring characters, this production, in the end, was better seen than heard. Not that the Venice populace would have cared anyway, as the 2008 Carnevale holiday had just kicked-off the evening prior.
The opening night of the 2008 season at La Fenice began with an announcement commemorating the recent deaths of two oil refinery workers who had perished in a work-related accident close to Venice, and followed appropriately with a moment of silence. The crowds were greatly mixed, many choosing formal dress while others sat in tourist casual flavor. OC chose her new Louboutins, black Wolford stockings, Giambattista Valli black empire waist baby-doll dress with ribbed sleeves, black Balenciaga wool lady coat, and a tiny Paul Smith black (with white hearts) zipped leather purse to hold a few things (earplugs & tylenol PM hahah aha aaaaa…just playin).
Graham Vick’s direction saved the production, because La Rondine, in Puccini's original idea was a sort of deluxe operetta, but it ended-up plagued by a long list of problems, with many revisions that never made il maestro completely happy. It is one unusual piece of work -- there are only two arias (one of which is pretty meaty), and Act II has moments that go off totally Broadway, which by the way is brilliant, because it's 1917 and opera will soon die its spectacular death after three centuries of beauty (yeah, Nixon In China, blah, blah, Tan Dun, Die Bassariden, yah -- let's face it: opera is dead, and we're OK with it because there's trillions of major works still to dig out of the dust of the centuries, and we'd rather go see a Haendel than a Corghi, sorrie)...so as we said...it's 1917 and opera is about to die and be reborn as the Broadway musical, so it's OK that Puccini already had that sound in his head, because it's the sound of the imminent future, of what opera will soon become. And big sequences of big arias are so 1850 anyway, am i rite?
The characters, as per Giuseppe Adami's libretto are obvious flaws, and are all too vague; it's a "Traviata Lite", without Germont's scheming, with an Alfredo who's even more of an a$$hole, and with a Violetta who's not really that complex a creature, but instead she simply wants to have some clean fun the way she wanted to have as a young girl, before she starting turning trix. And here to avoid Verdi's big downer-thing, and keep the opera light and funny, Puccini figured out that the girl doesn't have to die at the end (contradicting Puccini's standard modus operandi, "ze geerl must DIE BWAHAHAHAHA").
But yeah, the ending where the soprano just walks away from the relationship (as opposed to dying a tragic heroine’s death like Butterfly, Traviata, Boheme, et al) is terribly anti-climactic -- try staging that. This opera is a by0tch of an experience for OC. The love between our two main players, Magda and Ruggero, is reduced to the novice epiphanies you’d hear between two smitten preteens who are drowning in catastrophic hormones guised as rapturous love. Magda has flashbacks, though, and this is interesting -- Puccini sticks simple musical themes to her flashbacks, and the same themes come back later, in disguise, sometimes just a few bars to bookmark the action: now I'm sad, now I'm happy -- the way composers for film scores will learn how to do in later decades with the same sprezzatura.
Anyway, Vick -- who trained as a conductor, by the way, before choosing directing as his profession -- was able to supersede all limitations (for this versione 1917 of La Rondine), and gave an overall wash of Old Hollywood/Broadway fabulousness, executed tactfully with a light hand. The entire opera had been pulled into a mixed compromise between Parisian flair and American chic, resulting in a nostalgic late 40s-very early 50s infusion between the two settings. Act I, instead of a scripted salon in a 19th century Paris apartment, appeared as a penthouse apartment imagined in the Thin Man series, all sleek glass towers, metallic accents, Martini tumblers, higballs, tuxedos and soaring glass windows. Costumes by Sue Willmington had been melded as a synthesis of the 1940s, with austere wartime cuts (early 40s) mixed with fuller skirts and silky satin puffs from post-war abundance.
(Above: Sketch taken from the La Fenice program for La Rondine)
Carlo Rizzi’s conducting was trying to be sumptuous, painting lush shiny dashes of sound but given the wrong touch when held up against Antonio Pappano’s flawless read in the Alagna/Gheorghiu version. Although Rizzi was in decent control he still drowned out the blandness of the vocal lines quite a few times, he ended up giving the composition a more earthbound, sentimental, at times corny feel.
Act I introduced us to poet Prunier, sang by an uncharismatic Emanuele Giannino as demonstrated with his “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”. Magda's three friends, Yvette, Suzy and Bianca weren’t terribly impressive, with one of them even failing to remember key Italian gender agreements in the libretto. Fiorenza Cedolins sang a flawless Magda, but again...the whole Cedolins thing doesn’t really flow with OC’s vernacular, although she can understand the appeal.
Puccini’s noted Easter egg in Act I was roundly delivered -- when Prunier shares with Magda the type of woman who is worthy of conquering his guarded heart. “La donna che conquista,”….must be a Galatea, Berenice, Francesa, or Salome…and with that we have the famous leitmotif from Strauss’s Salome “Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jokanaan” inserted into the score, a delicious poke at Strauss. This is like the old skool version of the East Coast vs. West Coast rappers snappin on each other in their rhymes. Like Notorious B.I.G vs. 2Pac, Jay Z vs. Nas, LL Cool J vs. Jay-Z, and we’re all waiting to see who steps next.
(Above: Image from La Fenice program of La Rondine.)
Act II’s curtain rose after a half-hour pause (one bYotch of a scene change, a Vick trademark) on Bullier’s, which had been restructured by Vick as a funny sendup on La Bohème’s Café Momus, updated to an American early 1950s sock hop. The stage was flooded with dozens of extras, flowers, balloons, and crammed in every spot with café tables splayed from a 1950s VW van turned fast-food joint (Bullier’s now a hot-dog vendor), complete with matching Vespa scooters parked onstage. Giant cut-outs of four Moulin Rouge cabaret women overcame the stage, their bare limbs outlined in vanity bulbs. Sock-hop dancers and swingers strutted all over the stage, delivering the “love, joy and pleasure” promised at Bullier’s. Hot sailors dancing with buxom women. Little tables overflowing with beer glasses. Sexy (foxtrot) time!
(Above: photo by Michele Crosera for La fenice)
The duets between Magda and Ruggero -- she's the 'ho who meets the nice guy who reminds her of the nice boy she fell in love once upon a more innocent time -- went well enough “Io non so chi siate voi…” but of course, as is the main problem inherent to the opera, nothing was greatly moving. Ruggero’s “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” was embarrassingly derivative and made OC squirm with discomfort. It was followed later by Magda’s affirmation that she was upset at herself for loving Ruggero because she was afraid to be so happy. Yawnzies.
Act III opened after the last half-hour pause to a stark terrace overlooking the French Riviera sea, a splay of sand on stage with two gigantic umbrellas – one sheltering a table for two, and the other sheltering vases and vases of red roses. Magda was in a mint green dress, and Ruggero was in white pants with a gingham red short sleeved dress shirt. They both rolled around barefoot in the sand like bathing chinchillas. When Lisette and Prunier entered (he the Pygmalion of the maid who wants to become a singer, bah), it was unmemorable. They were both so unanimated and awkward.
Then, towards the end, when Magda comes clean and tells her boi that she cannot marry him because of her past, she abandons the blubbering Ruggero, strutting offstage. At that moment, the hanging backdrop of the blue, cloud-filled sky plummets to the stage floor, crashing down with a shocking THUD! -- the sky has literally fallen, after the death of love. Revealing a penitent Magda walking slowly and mournfully to a waiting Packard and motorcycle escort. The former backdrop of an idealized, halcyon day on the French Riviera, made Ruggero’s laments of “Non lasciarmi” even more chilling.
It was a fantastic, bada$$ ending to a very difficult to realize opera, and Vick demonstrated his elegant genius, which unlike an equally-gifted Robert Carsen, he didn’t foist into your face with hammy bareknuckled fists.
Vick slam dunked it like Jordan, and the audience went wild. We were content to golf clap for the voices of the evening, but after a few curtain calls, Vick & Co. appeared from backstage and took their much-deserved applause. The house went wild for a few minutes, and bravi all around, with Vick surrounded by the chorus and the extras who gave him the applause he deserved. Then OC took in a well-deserved fish-galore meal at La Fenice, the very nice restaurant adjacent to the theater, and there was much rejoycing. amen hallelujah!
It’ll probably take the second coming of Jesus to bring OC back to Venezia for la prima @ La Fenice again, though, as Carnevale is the Italian equivalent of the American furry fandom and cosplay, RPGers, otaku fanboys & girls emulating their favorite anime characters, while grown women run around the city with glitter smeared on their faces, designs that emulated scarred birthmarks or traumatic burns.
OC doesn’t h8 the players, just h8s the game. She *hearts* Graham Vick though, because he knows that opera seriously needs to have its s#1t f*çked up real bad.
And doesn't he deliver.