Love and Loss: La rondine at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Puccini – La rondine

Magda – Ermonela Jaho
Lisette – Alexandra Hutton
Ruggero – Charles Castronovo
Prunier – Matthew Newlin
Rambaldo – Stephen Bronk
Périchaud – Paull-Anthony Keightley
Gobin – Huang Ya-Chung
Crébillon – Thomas Lehman
Yvette – Cornelia Kim
Bianca – Meechot Marrero
Suzy – Amber Fasquelle
Ein Haushofmeister – Philipp Jekal

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / John Fiore.
Stage director – Rolando Villazón

Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, February 16th, 2019.

In life, there are some who are destined to love and to lose, led by their life choices to a place where a glimmer of love is possible, yet ultimately not to be.  This is the premise that sits at the core of Rolando Villazón’s 2015 staging of La rondine at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, tonight revived with, in the lead roles, two of the greatest Puccinians before the public today – Ermonela Jaho and Charles Castronovo.  The last time I saw them together in Puccini, a Bohème at the London Royal Opera back in 2014, was so searingly intense that I was left so shaken and moved, I was ready to seek counselling on leaving the theatre.  With the best will in the world, Rondine is a fabulous piece in so many ways, yet the final act always feels like something of an anti-climax, after the hymn to love that is Act 2.  Always, that is, until tonight.

Villazón gives us an intelligent, thoughtful staging that looks good.  Updated to the 1920s, the second act in particular is a fabulously decadent nightclub, complete with lady go-go dancers at the back of the stage.  Both Magda’s salon and her Riviera villa were placed within clean, visually attractive spaces.  Villazón had an interesting idea of having three gentlemen with masks covering their faces as a constant presence on stage.  I found it fascinating – the idea of Magda never being completely able to forget the men who came before.  Especially, in what was a highly affecting final tableau as she bid farewell to Ruggero, to return to a life that no longer had meaning.  The downside, was that these figures felt somewhat intrusive at times – though with singing-actors with the sheer star quality of Jaho and Castronovo, it never felt that they distracted from the principals.  There was some random stage business with cello bows that felt somewhat superfluous, but on the whole, it was a more than decent framework for the action.

John Fiore clearly loves this music deeply.  He led the house band in a swooning reading, in bright Technicolour, the strings in particular producing a staggering range of instrumental colour, full of soaring portamenti combined with a ravishing beauty and transparency of texture.  Stage-pit coordination at the start of Act 2 wasn’t quite à point, with the lusty house chorus apparently wanting to go their own way.  There’s a fine line between loving a piece and being self-indulgent, and I’m not convinced that Fiore kept to the former side of the line.  Tempi were often quite flaccid, although the exceptionally languid tempo he chose for ‘ch’il bel sogno di Doretta’ allowed Jaho to float her lines most dreamily.  Fiore certainly focused on the languorous beauty of the work, although it felt in need of more dynamism, especially in the Act 2 waltz.  That said, ‘bevo al tuo fresco sorriso’ was glorious.  Castronovo launched it in his uniquely handsome tenor, with that ardent Italianate gorgeousness of tone, the line full of humanity.  Jaho joined the ensemble, capping the line in ecstatic exaltation.  There was a palpable emotion there that felt so real and so genuine.

Photo: © Bettina Stöß 2015

Jaho’s Magda was immensely moving.  She dominated the stage from her first entry, commanding it and holding our attention, pulling us into Magda’s vulnerability and desire to love once again.  Vocally, her silvery soprano soared over the textures, taking wing with ease.  She combined the beauty of tone with real meaning, digging deep into the text and finding its truth, that desperate desire to find a love that has meaning and the sadness that comes from knowing that it can never be.  In Act 3, both Jaho and Castronovo were devastating – she colouring the tone, finding a metal within the velvet, he opening up on top ardently, seemingly without limits.

Indeed, there was a touching innocence to Castronovo’s Ruggero, bringing out a boyish charm that made his falling in love all the more believable.  The voice spins quite wonderfully on top, and that warm, masculine middle always gives an enormous amount of pleasure.  As with Jaho, Castronovo also used the text fully, using the worlds to colour the line most expertly.  His longing for a conventional married life was vocalized with honeyed warmth and long-breathed phrases.  A deeply affecting assumption.

Matthew Newlin sang Prunier with a well-focused, nicely-placed tenor. While the text as certainly clear, I did wish he’d used the vowels to shade the tone more.  Alexandra Hutton was a sparky Lisette, her dusky soprano had an easy reach on top.  Unfortunately, her performance lost impact due to the fact that her diction wasn’t ideally clear with words indistinct higher up, although in the middle the words did carry.  The remainder of the cast was populated by fresh young voices, joined by the more mature Stephen Bronk’s appropriately gruff Rambaldo.

In many respects this was a very decent house performance in the supporting cast, combined with some excellent orchestral playing, in a thoughtful and moving staging.  Yet it was elevated well beyond that, by two outstanding singing-actors at the peak of their powers, finding a truthfulness at a point in the work where it almost always falls flat.  As Jaho floated her final note into nothingness, it felt that we had also gone on a journey deep into love and loss.  The audience responded by giving the cast a fabulously warm reception.

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