In his wonderful BBC series on Italian opera, Antonio Pappano declared that "Puccini does love like no other composer," a phrase I've also heard from others. Act II of La Rondine is a perfect example of this, in which we watch the high-class courtesan Magda and the virtuous but penniless Ruggero fall for each other: they are in a crowded Parisian night club, but the rest of the world ceases to exist around them.

© Fritz Curzon
© Fritz Curzon

La Rondine has been very much overshadowed by Puccini's more famous La Bohème and Manon Lescaut, but it remains a finely honed painting of love's ebb and flow. The title means "the swallow," Magda being the swallow who flies into Ruggero's life for an all-too-short summer, at the end of which she returns to her wealthy sugar daddy, leaving him penniless and heartbroken. Technically, it's a "comic opera" in that there are several cheerful passages and no-one actually dies, but it's a sad and moving tale, illuminated by Puccini's genius for conveying raw emotion and by a verismo libretto that is consistently believable and witty.

The outstanding performer was Seán Ruane as Ruggero. Performing Puccini is a bit like the instructions for giving a dinner party in The Joy of Cooking (for half a century, the American bible for such things): huge amounts of work must be put in, but everything must look as if it was no effort at all. Ruane's voice is rich and warm-hearted, and he follows the lilt and phrasing of Puccini as if it comes completely naturally to him. As Magda, Kate Ladner had her best moments in her many duets with Ruane. She has the voice and the potential to be a fine Puccini singer, but I found her performance a bit nervy. She certainly has the required elegance, and her voice sounded lovely and unstrained, but she was often rather staccato, lacking the smooth lilt of Puccini phrase that seemed to come so easily to Ruane.

A certain amount of bad luck was involved. One of the hazards of Opera Holland Park is that you are in a tightly stretched tent, and Ladner was unfortunate in that in every one of her set piece arias, the tent was being pelted with rain. (The usual appearance of the notorious OHP helicopter didn't help either.) La Rondine's most famous number by far is Chi bel sogno di Doretta, which happens very early in the opera: Ladner sang the high notes with grace and power, but the notes stretching down to middle C were barely audible above the rain and a rather overenthusiastic orchestra. Conductor Peter Selwyn extracted some lovely sounds, but turned up the volume far too often and overpowered most of his singers - the exceptions being Ruane, Hye-Youn Lee, who gave a vivacious and fun performance as the maid Lisette, and a wonderful cameo by Anna Patalong as the Voice of the Dawn, who gets a very beautiful aria as the Act II party ends.

Opera Holland Park gave us a master class in direction. Peter Rice's staging and Chrissy Madison's costumes placed us in 1920s art deco territory (the opera was written in 1917) and were executed quite beautifully. The Act I cocktail party was moneyed and smart, the Act II night club scene a riot of colour, and the Act III break-up scene beautifully done in all-white. Director Tom Hawkes provided a perfect visual balance in which there was plenty on which to rest the eye, but nothing to distract you overtly from the main action of the opera. For a second time this summer, I found myself wishing that directors in major opera houses would be more like this in making their innovation serve the opera rather than feeling so desperate to make an individual artistic statement.

La Rondine may lack the ability to hit you between the eyes of Puccini's greatest works and may seem a little mannered at times, but I still found myself seduced by the music and by its sensitive and intimate depiction of the thrills and sadnesses of romance. It's nice for a change to see an opera which is serious and affecting but where no-one dies slowly and painfully, and doubly so when directed with this quality.

***11