Puccini’s “La Rondine”: Hard to Swallow

Opera connoisseurs all know the soprano aria from La Rondine.  It’s a fairly common party piece, it is beautiful, musically, and for sopranos who have the range and killer pianissimo high C’s  it’s a perfect showcase for these in concerts and auditions.   Yet, ask any of those same opera-lovers what the opera itself is about and most would be hard put to tell you.    As it happens, there’s a good reason for that:  it is dreadful.   The “good” thing about it is that, unlike nearly all other Italian operas involving a tragic romance, no one dies.1

To come up with this left-over stew of an opera, Puccini probably started with La Bohème: a starving poet (Rodolfo), suffering hack artist (Marcello), and their respective paramours, Mimi, conspicuously dying of consumption, and Musetta, who lives entirely to consume conspicuously.  Next, he switched Rodolfo and Marcello, and gave Mimi back her health. Scratch that.2  Switch Mimi out completely for Despina from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.    And that garret they were living in?  Too depressing.   Now Violetta’s Parisian digs in La Traviata … THERE’s a crib to envy, AND it comes with a posse:  Germont pater and Douphol.  Change all of the names to protect the composer from charges of abject plagiarism, make them all nauseatingly bourgeois,  give it a good stir, and voila`!    Out comes the tasteless slop of an opera  titled La Rondine (The Swallow).  

So, what’s this opera actually about?  A couple of rich, self-absorbed assholes prattling on to their long-suffering friends about their first-world problems. That’s what.

Act I takes place at a cocktail party at the home of Magda, who, as a young “working girl”, recounts the happy evenings she enjoyed dancing at Maxim’s  Bullier’s.   (This is the part where she sings that famous aria.  If this is your first time seeing this opera, leaving immediately after the aria is finished, while perhaps rude, is nonetheless strongly advised.)   Then in comes Alfredo Germont Ruggero Lastouc (seriously) with a letter from his father introducing him to one of Magda’s clients … er … guests, Douphol Rambaldo.  Prunier reads Magda’s palm which reveals she likes to swallow.  No, no!  She is like a swallow3, craving migration to sunnier climes, always looking for love, and so forth.   Ruggero, only just arrived and yet already bored to tears, tells the group he’s new in town and wonders where he can find a real party.  Lisette recommends Bullier’s, and Ruggero is off to it with nary a second kiss on the cheek.   Magda, hearing all this, heads off to change into her secret Working Girl identity after muttering something to Lisette about staying home for the rest of the evening.   Lisette, having heard that line before, grabs Prunier and they both make tracks for Bullier’s to get a front-row seat to the drama about to unfold there.

In Act II we find ourselves at Bullier’s, everyone’s already well in the bottle by the time Magda shows up, and several men (and perhaps one or two women) are instantly all over her like cheese on risotto.  Looking around she quickly spots Ruggero staring at his mobile and joins him on the ruse that she needs to look like she’s with him until those guys quit staring at her.  (Perhaps one or two are in fact staring at Ruggero?)  He closes his facebook app and tries to pay attention to her, trying hard (and mostly succeeding) to keep his eyes north of her collarbone.   Prunier and Lisette show up, arguing.  It seems Prunier wants to turn Lisette into a lady and she’s perfectly happy being a grotty little slut.   They see Magda and Ruggero and walk over to join them.    Ruggero, now swiping his way through snapchat, has thus far failed to recognise Magda in her disguise.   Again, Puccini lifts a scene straight out of another opera — Adele and Eisensten’s meeting in Act II of Die Fledermaus this time — and has Magda oh so subtly get Lisette (and Prunier, presumably) to go along with her charade.   Ruggero, who just can’t seem to put his damn phone down for few minutes, is now chuckling at cat videos on youtube.   Prunier then recites a poem he’s written, which somehow gets Ruggero’s attention.  The four of them face off in a quartet that is the opera’s only other bright spot.   (Leave NOW, I’m telling you.)   Enter Rambaldo.4  Prunier sees him before the others do and instructs Lisette to get Ruggero the hell outta there before the merde really hits the fan.  For once, she complies.   Rambaldo, who is clearly far more perceptive that Ruggero, heads straight for Magda and demands to know what’s going on.   Magda wordily tells him to shove off, which he does.   Ruggero and Lisette return and with dispatch that can be rivaled only by Rodolfo and Mimi’s hooking up scene, Ruggero and Magda decide they want to live together.   The act closes with Magda, who still hasn’t told Ruggero her real name let alone anything about herself, wondering if perhaps this isn’t such a good idea.

In yet another shameless imitation of La Traviata, Act III of Rondine takes place in a villa well outside of Paris, and as with Alfredo and Violetta, Ruggero and Magda have been shacked up living together in bliss for several months.   Regrettably, unlike Violetta, Magda is not suffering from consumption or any other terminal malady.   Moreover, after all these months together she has yet to tell Ruggero who  she really is.   As with Leonard and Penny5, Ruggero keeps proposing marriage to Magda and she keeps putting him off.  He sings of how great it will be when they have a little Ruggero or … saaaaay … What IS your name again? … running around.    Magda feels a migraine coming on.  Prunier shows up with a letter for Ruggero from his mother.  Ruggero takes this and goes off to find a letter opener or something.   Prunier tells Magda that Rambaldo wants her back and will take her on whatever terms she likes.   Her lips tell him she’s not interested while other parts of her anatomy beg to differ.  Ruggero returns and reads from the  letter wherein his mother tells him that if this woman is half as wonderful as he’s described her, they will have a long marriage filled with happiness. 6    Realizing that there is no way in hell her past would be acceptable to his family, and finding the prospect of being sentenced to this fiction for life growing less appealing by the day, along with the recollection of Rambaldo being way better in bed that Mr. Droopy-Drawers over there sends Magda over the edge.  She confesses everything to Ruggero and tells him they cannot be married and that she can no longer be with him.   He cries, stamps his feet and carries on like the spoiled little sook that he is.  The opera ends with Magda returning to Paris to be with Rambaldo leaving Ruggero there on the stage, sucking his thumb while staring at his facebook app.

Opera should be experienced, in large part because it is, after all, story-telling and the most interesting parts of any story are its characters.   The best stories captivate us by introducing us to characters we can strongly, or at least quickly identify with.   In La Rondine there are no such characters.  Well, perhaps Prunier (the name sort of gains something in translation, don’t you think?) and Lisette, who are sort of the Fred and Ethel7 of this little clique` aren’t so bad.   One might even regard them as “cute”, whereas Rodolfo … I mean Ruggero … and Magda (wait … Mimi?   No.  Magda. Got it right that time.)  swing from cloyingly codependent to gag-inducingly maudlin so often you’ll lose count by the time she finally ditches him for Douphol Rambo Rambaldo.  (nailed it!)  Maybe the opera would be performed more often if there were an app for that?

  1. The audience, however, will likely be left in a mood to murder at least one or two of the characters and perhaps even the composer, too.
  2. “Ah never-a like-a Mimi.  Sheeza … how you say?  High maintenance, dat-a one.”, Confessions, by G. Puccini)
  3. Please, pardon my French.
  4. He courteously waited outside until the quartet was finished.  (Gwyneth.)
  5. Big Bang Theory?  hellllloooo??
  6. This bears absolutely NO resemblance whatsoever to Violetta getting a letter from Alfredo’s father telling her their union is ruining Alfredo’s sister’s marriage (wat?) and that he’ll have to disinherit Alfredo if she insists on staying with him.  (WHAT!?)
  7. Howard & Bernadette, if you please — see previous note re: TBBT

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