With its infectious dance rhythms and plenty of larger-than-life characters, Puccini’s La rondine was an excellent choice for the students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to end their year. It is a demanding opera requiring a large orchestra and cast, and with its full period costumes and sets, this was a very stylish production indeed.

La rondine © KK Dundas
La rondine
© KK Dundas

In 1913 Puccini was commissioned by Vienna’s Carltheater to write a Viennese operetta, but without dialogue. La rondine (The Swallow) was finished in 1916, but the First World War and rejection of the opera by Riccordi’s son, Tito, meant that it received its première in neutral Monte Carlo. The opera is a late work written after La fanciulla del West and ahead of Il trittico and Turandot and continues to be eclipsed by Puccini’s ‘big three’. The fact that the composer rewrote the work three times over the following four years, sometimes with completely different endings, suggests that he was never completely happy with the result.  

This story of misplaced love centres on Magda, star stage performer at the Grand Guignol theatre in Pigalle, run by her patron Rambaldo. Magda falls in love with a stranger – Ruggero – and pursues him in disguise to Bullier's nightclub, where she is spotted by her dresser Lisette on her night off. There is a showdown and the lovers run off to a new life together on the French Riviera, but their happiness can’t last.

 Designers Guiseppe and Emma Belli have had a huge amount of fun with this production. A sumptuous theatre set of backstage paraphernalia including clothes rails, make up dressing tables, upright rehearsal piano, chaise longue and even a bakelite phone provided a brilliantly louche setting for Act I.

 After the show, a trio of girls (Yvette, Bianca and Suzy) are changing out of their burlesque costumes while the poet Prunier sings a song about the fictional Doretta looking for love, and Magda finishes the story for him. Various men hang about, and Lisette announces that a stranger is outside. Rather like the café scene in La bohème, at times there were many disjointed vignettes all going on at once, and director Benjamin Davis used both sides of the stage well to separate out the action, yet allowing the main set pieces to shine through.     

Bullier’s nightclub in a splendid centrepiece to the opera, was a riot of tables, chairs, coloured lanterns and people seriously enjoying themselves as everyone partied towards dawn. It was a magnificent spectacle to watch as the partygoers ebbed and flowed to and from various tables, flirting, ordering more wine, sometimes falling out and dancing wonderfully. Ruggero and Magda (in disguise as Paulette) fall in love and are last to leave as waiters stack chairs, clear tables and an offstage girl sings to the dawn.

Finally, on the French Riviera, we meet Magda and Ruggero with their money running out. The set is sparse, with cushions and sunshine, but an overturned table and fire bucket tell us that all is not going well. Lisette has been persuaded by Prunier to try her hand at singing, but after a disastrous night in Nice, they both arrive pursuing Magda. However, Magda has not been truthful about her background, and when a letter from Ruggero’s mother arrives, she realises that she cannot be accepted into his family. Paris beckons and like The Swallow of the title, she returns, leaving Ruggero distraught.

This production has several parts double-cast, and on the opening night, Ragnheiður Oladottir was an impressive Magda with Joseph Oparamanuike a lovely sung poet Prunier. Arshak Kuzikyan oozed malevolent power as Rambaldo and Andreas Backlund was the smitten lover Ruggero. Barbara Cole Walton sang the entertainingly skittish maid Lisette.

While there were a few uncertain moments at times, the singing and acting from the general ensemble more than held this well-directed production together. In the pit, Oliver Rundell drew out many colours from the large student orchestra, and balanced the sound well.

La rondine is not a perfect piece by any means, and one longs for the music to really take off at times. The ending is weak and fizzles out, and you can understand why the composer wanted to revisit it. That said, there was a lot to like from this big-hearted production which gave the students onstage, in the pit and backstage a valuable chance to work with a talented production team.