Is it opera, or operetta? Actually, Pucciniʼs La rondine looked more like 1930s Hollywood in its première at the State Opera in Prague on Wednesday night. Men in tuxes, women in glamorous gowns, socialites with endless leisure time, people who barely know each other falling passionately in love – the only thing missing was Greta Garbo.

This proved to be a smart treatment of the composerʼs lightweight 1917 work, which was commissioned by the Carltheater in Vienna, a popular operetta house. Despite his insistence that he would never stoop to what he considered a lower form, Puccini was eager to turn out a comedy along the lines of Der Rosenkavalier, and asked his new librettist, Italian playwright Giuseppe Adami, to rework a romantic comedy the theater sent. It tells the story of Magda de Civry, a Paris socialite  whose whirlwind love affair with the young Ruggero is doomed by her past as a courtesan. Providing dramatic and comic counterpoint are her maid Lisette, the poet Prunier and her wealthy benefactor Rambaldo.

 The production was billed as a concert performance, though it might more accurately be described as a semi-staged version. The singers carried scores and split their time between six music stands arrayed across the front of the stage and a spare set of tables, chairs, a piano and a long, luxurious couch. For its appearance in Act II, the chorus stood concert-style on several tiers at the rear of the stage. And the orchestra was in the pit throughout, led by State Opera Music Director Martin Leginus.

For the most part, this arrangement worked. The narrative thread of La rondine is so flimsy that a straightforward treatment of the piece would likely collapse under its own weight. In the salon of the first act, where Magda trades bon mots with her guests and then hatches a scheme to meet Ruggero at a nightclub, the breezy style and half-acted, half-sung from the stands approach was a good fit. It became a bit awkward at the nightclub in Act II, especially with the chorus standing stiff in what is should be a lively, swinging place. And Magda was still in her glittery gown rather than the disguise that supposedly fools Ruggero and her friends.

As many observers have noted, La rondine looks and sounds a great deal like operetta in the first two acts, then turns into serious opera in the third, when Magda and Ruggeroʼs love affair comes to a tragic end. Prunier and Lisette appear briefly for a dialogue and duet, but mostly itʼs the two lovers singing with passionate heartache worthy of Madama Butterfly – which is tough to pull off when youʼre parked side-by-side at music stands.

Still, Eva Hornyáková and Luciano Mastro gave it their best, which was quite good. Hornyáková has a beautifully clear voice with power and range, and just the right touch of tenderness for a tragic heroine. Mastro sings in heroic tones that were almost out of proportion for a smitten boyfriend, though he proved to be a strong anchor in the final act. And three regulars from the State Opera company provided able, amusing complements – Jana Sibera as Lisette, Jarsolav Březina as Prunier and Zdenĕk Plech as Rambaldo.

Under Leginusʼ baton, the State Opera Orchestra sounded as good as it has in long time. The music was bright and buoyant, sparkling with rich detail and spot-on in delivering dramatic accents and flourishes. There are several versions of the score, and Leginus chose the first because, he said, “Itʼs the most beautiful”. That was how he treated it, as a lush and radiant romance rendered in glowing colors and an effervescent, optimistic spirit.

By eveningʼs end, it was easy to see why La rondine isnʼt staged very often. Dramatically insubstantial and musically uneven, it would be a weak sister in any season repertoire. But for a season-ending confection that provides some escapist entertainment without taxing the resources of the house, it was a great choice.