Puccini: La Rondine / Alieva, Brignoli
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The Azerbaijani soprano Dinara Alieva, a Bolshoi soloist since 2010, is better known for her Russian – rather than Italian – repertoire, but sings most prettily as Magda. There’s a rich darkness to her voice, especially in Doretta’s Dream, but there is also an attractive lighter quality later on which is very appealing. Her acting isn’t a strength, regularly outshone by Alexandra Hutton’s sparky performance as her feisty maid Lisette. Charles Castronovo’s Ruggero moons around with puppy-dog eyes and matinee-idol good looks – a perfect role for his lyric tenor. Alvaro Zambrano provides a good contrast, a vibrant Prunier, if lacking a true legato. He and Hutton work well as the comic pair who reunite before the leading couple part as the opera closes. Roberto Rizzi Brignoli occasionally indulges Puccini’s score with a little too much rubato but draws rich playing from the Berlin strings. An understated, stylish production, which could win round some of Rondine’s critics.
This, Puccini’s stepchild opera—once called “the day off of a genius”—used to be a rarity. Against all better judgment, however, it is popping up everywhere nowadays, including, as we can see from this video from March of last year, the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. This makes six available DVDs of this opera, while, say, the likes of Das Liebesverbot must languish on audio only. Injustice, I say.
Perhaps the public is growing fond of saccharine music attached to a plot that has elements of La traviata without the depth and some rollicking moments stolen from Die Fledermaus. Or perhaps it’s becoming popular because it’s short and the audience can be home for the 11 o’clock news.
Until this performance arrived, finding the best DVD was easy—it was from the Met and starred Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. Beautifully sung and stunning to look at, one could overlook Gheorghiu’s relentless artificiality. But here we have a performance that lands the “best sung” award.
As our heroine, Magda, Azerbaijani soprano Dinara Alieva, when not singing in Russia, has been working mostly in German and Austrian opera houses. She is remarkable: perhaps not the finest of actresses, and with a technique that does not include using the breath properly, she owns a voice that is luscious in ways that we don’t hear lately.
With a warm, throbbing vibrato, she sounds to be an ideal Verdi and Puccini soprano; a full lyric with big, secure top notes (videos of her Traviata are on YouTube, as is a performance of her singing “Casta Diva”—both seem unfinished products, but the sheer sound is grand and memorable). The “Sogno di Doretta” is gorgeous, pianissimo high C and all. We can hope that she will become a true interpreter of the major roles. Her Magda is not girlish and flirty, as she is usually interpreted, but a woman of a certain age who makes up her own mind. This reading, probably the director’s, makes perfect sense.
At her side, as Ruggero, is the fine American tenor Charles Castronovo. He’s a singer who does everything right: the voice is handsome and well-produced, he sings off the text, he acts well, presenting a character naïve in the extreme early on, and shattered and incredulous by Magda’s rejection of him. As the opera’s “fun” couple, Lisette (Magda’s maid) and Prunier (a local poet), Alexandra Hutton and Alvaro Zambrano, sing marvelously and with spectacular energy, although their attempts to walk away with the show occasionally border on severe overacting. Stephen Bronk exhibits a solid bass voice to the thankless role of Rambaldo, Magda’s man-about-town.
The director is Rolando Villazon—yes, that one—and he brims over with ideas. Updating the opera to the “Roaring ’20s” allows for stunning flapper costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and in the sets by Johannes Leiacker there are not only references to surreal artists like René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Man Ray, but also a very permissive nude Venus by Titian as a backdrop for Act 1. The second-act cabaret scene is appropriately tacky and jumpy; in the last act, by the sea-shore, we encounter the same nude, but as a Magritte-like cut-out in sky blue against the blue sky. It works.
What doesn’t work, and gets in the way, are three male figures in white fencing attire (including masks) who interact, pose, and prance about; they hold up empty picture frames/mirrors to Magda, they writhe about in physical pain when Ruggero is in emotional pain in the last act. Are they the ghosts of Magda’s ex-lovers? A comment on the emptiness of her life? Or are they just there to keep us busy? I get the feeling the symbolism simply wasn’t clearly thought through—and is far too heavy for this piece of operatic, day-old meringue.
Roberto Rizzi Brignoli leads the Berlin forces with such enthusiasm that the performance is absolutely worth watching and the opera practically seems chic. Bravi to all, and now can we move them all into something more substantial?
– ClassicsToday (Robert Levine)
Subtitles: English, French, German
Audio Format: PCM Stereo - DTS 5.0
Catalog Number: DV 7010
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli
Orchestra/Ensemble: Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus, Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Performer: Alexandra Hutton, Alvaro Zambrano, Charles Castronovo, Dinara Alieva