Rolando Villazón has taken his career in an interesting new direction: he has begun directing. His directorial debut with the Deutsche Oper Berlin is a new production of Puccini's lesser-known work, La rondine.

Aurelia Florian (Magda) and Charles Castronovo (Ruggero) © Bettina Stöss
Aurelia Florian (Magda) and Charles Castronovo (Ruggero)
© Bettina Stöss

La rondine premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917, and was generally well recieved. However, a series of lacklustre productions in Vienna, Milan and New York followed, and then the financial instability of the Great Depression rendered new productions on risky operas unfeasable, and La rondine faded into obscurity for the next several decades. 

What is the problem with La rondine? Nothing, on the surface. The music is chic and elegant, and the story is simple: a woman of the world loves and leaves an innocent young man because she does not want to besmirch his family honor by letting him marry a courtesan. In this way it is reminiscent of both Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (older woman releasing her young lover) and La traviata (courtesan leaves her lover for respectibility's sake), with a dash of the café scene from La bohème thrown in for good measure. And yet, La rondine is none of these operas. It is a straightforward, elegant look at Parisian life and love, neither comic nor tragic. And alas, it rather suffers for it.

Charles Castronovo (Ruggero) © Bettina Stöss
Charles Castronovo (Ruggero)
© Bettina Stöss

Villazón's production matched the simple plot. The opera takes place in the Paris of the 1920s, a time of ex-pat Americans and collapsing social mores, and Villazón's production reflects that. The costumes sparkle and gleam, the cabaret at Bullier's is filled with mimes and bawdy chorus girls, and the general esthetic is one of a breathless round of pleasure. It is hardly groundbreaking, but it works, and does not distract the audience from the story as it unfolds. 

Magda is a wealthy kept woman, bored with her life, surrounded by girlfriends and rather dreaming of getting away from the rush and froth of Parisian life. Aurelia Florian sang her with a stylish flair. Her Magda was no coquette, but a woman who made her own decisions. Whether in the muted elegance of her own salon or the dance hall, where she falls in love with Ruggero, or the seaside expanse of the French Riviera, Florian's Magda acted with her head, not her heart. Charles Castronovo's Ruggero is far more cheery, more innocent and far more naive. His singing was strong and clear, his devastation at being left by his lover for no apparent reason (beyond her own ennui) was palpable.

Alvaro Zambrano (Prunier) and Alexandra Hutton (Lisette) © Bettina Stöss
Alvaro Zambrano (Prunier) and Alexandra Hutton (Lisette)
© Bettina Stöss

In bright contrast was the comic couple, Lisette and Prunier. They left the elegance to the higher class people and swanned around like Bertie Wooster and the Honorable Roberta Wickham, bickering and flirting and being generally funny. Alexandra Hutton sang Lisette with a wonderfully clear voice, convincing in her affection for Magda and her relief to be back in that lady's service. Alvaro Zambrano sang Prunier with a swagger and a wink, his voice mocking and bright. Whereas Magda and Ruggero have no reason to break up and do, Lisette and Prunier have every reason to break up, yet stick together. Whether this is genius or folly on Puccini's part doesn't matter – the quartet here sell it well. 

The production was rounded out by further fine performances from in smaller roles. The Chorus of the Deutsche Oper was in excellent form, as always, and Roberto Rizzi Brignoli led the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper with verve and elegance. It was a fine evening and a lovely performance. If you are in Berlin, don't miss it!