With the hefty number of successes under Puccini’s belt that continue to dominate the stage today, it’s easy to forget the one he called “my dear, forgotten child”, La rondine, the composer’s first and only foray into operetta. Met with indifference by critics and mild, but not passionate approval by the public, it has a lamentable performance history in this country, ignored by most of our opera companies. Those of us who love this rich and meandering score owe a debt to Opera Holland Park, specialists in Italian opera of this period, for championing the piece in what is now its third production.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Magda) and Sophie Dicks (Suzy) © Robert Workman
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Magda) and Sophie Dicks (Suzy)
© Robert Workman

If the plot seems familiar, it’s because there are more than a few hints of La traviata: there’s a successful courtesan hosting a salon party supported by a rich man, a love affair with a young outsider and an elopement from the city, but it avoids the permanent dramatic punch of Verdi in favour of a gentler meditation on life and love. Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production bumps the setting forward from the 1920s to the 50s; the sets, designed by takis, are spot on. Magda’s salon, where she stands out in a vibrant yellow dress against the faded colours of the other ladies, is a cool, elegant blue, all drapes and elegant furniture which are then torn down in a blink-of-the-eye scene change to reveal the postered walls of the nightclub Bullier’s. Lighting changes to a dull red that promises debauchery before transforming into a riot of colour for dancing. The third act relocates to the French Riviera, the set depicting the outside of a grand, but fading hotel. Lloyd-Evans’ direction was at its best in the second act, the atmosphere of the nightclub brought to life by the realism of acting from every member of the ensemble. The choreography (courtesy of Steve Elias) was exceptionally well-done here, a raucous dance performed in fairly tight quarters with joy and abandon.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Magda) and Matteo Lippi (Ruggero) © Robert Workman
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Magda) and Matteo Lippi (Ruggero)
© Robert Workman

Singing Magda, Elizabeth Llewellyn has obvious stage presence and the vocal stature to go with it; the bottom of the voice is full and has an appealing spice to it that makes it quite distinctive, while her middle is luxuriously warm. Only in the higher register did she disappoint with an absence of pinpoint accuracy and stability that was somewhat countered by its power and the honesty of her delivery. Commitment to the role was absolute, from the grace of her salon presence, through breathless excitement in Bullier’s, to her sacrifice in the third act. There was obvious chemistry with her Ruggero, energetically sung by Matteo Lippi, whose burly voice was full of Italianate warmth. Diction was clear and top notes were delivered with heft and security, while his air of ‘fish out of water’ in the salon and as he entered the club was nicely judged.

Tereza Gevorgyan (Lisette) and Stephen Aviss (Prunier) © Robert Workman
Tereza Gevorgyan (Lisette) and Stephen Aviss (Prunier)
© Robert Workman

Stephen Aviss offered a Prunier with a mincing and mannered facade that frequently had holes blown through it by his fascination with Lisette. Prunier gets the first great vocal moment of the evening in the first verse of “Chi' il bel sogno di Doretto”, which lacked lightness at the top but benefited from ardent articulation. Tereza Gevorgyan as Lisette struggled with poor projection and failed to make a real vocal impression, despite attractive shading and a not unpleasant higher register, but was strong dramatically, with a saucy performance in the first act and well-timed comic delivery in the second. David Stephenson’s Rambaldo – truly an exact double of Barone Douphol from La traviata – was an aggressive, lurking presence.

Matthew Kofi Waldren drew a first-class performance from the City of London Sinfonia, revelling in the glorious froth and whimsy of the score, occasionally threatening to overpower the singers early on in the performance, but highlighting so much of the sweeping beauty and orchestral detail of Puccini’s writing that one could sit there and wallow in that alone. As an opening to Opera Holland Park’s 2017 season, this was a resounding success.

****1