Review: La Rondine Is an Enjoyable Bittersweet Romantic Opera

Winter Opera Saint Louis opens its 16th season with a charming take on Puccini

click to enlarge A woman dressed in 1920’s flapper style with a flower in her hair stands as a man dressed in trousers, vest and a shirt, kneels before her offering her praise, in a scene from Puccini’s opera ‘La Rondine’ at Winter Opera Saint Louis.
REBECCA HAAS
Magda (Karen Kanakis) accepts the admiration of a guest (Michael Oelkers) at her residence in ‘La Rondine’ at Winter Opera Saint Louis.

The gilded glamour of 1920’s Paris is the setting for Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine (The Swallow), a tale of love found and left behind. Winter Opera Saint Louis’s production, with conductor Scott Schoonover and stage director Eric Gibson at the helm, was thoroughly beguiling, from the vocal quality and lively portrayals to the gorgeous period-setting scenic and costume design to the captivating melodies.

As the story opens, Rambaldo and his mistress Magda are entertaining when the poet Prunier laments that Paris is caught in a plague of romantic love. Rambaldo and the other guests scoff at the poet; only Magda takes an interest. She finishes Prunier’s ramble with a long-ago memory, igniting a dormant longing of her own. Donning a disguise and using the name Paulette, she meets Ruggero at a restaurant. They fall in love while dancing and decide to run away together.

Unfortunately, life and Puccini are more realistic, leading Magda to face a heartbreaking choice. The two flee the city, living blissfully until their money runs out. Ruggero writes to his family and his mother replies that she is delighted he has found a good, virtuous woman to marry. On hearing his mother’s reply, Magda decides she can no longer mislead Ruggero and confesses to her past as a courtesan. Ruggero protests that he loves her still. Prunier and Lisette arrive, quarreling. Prunier tells Magda that Rambaldo will take her back. Lisette asks Magda to take her back as her maid. The previous balance is restored, but at what cost?

Karen Kanakis is captivating as Magda, with a silky smooth soprano that’s delicate through control, not lack of power. Her performance is similarly expressive. Instead of forced or caricatured, an easy choice for the lighthearted if ultimately heartbreaking opera, Kanakis gives us a fluid and completely integrated performance. As Magda’s new love Ruggero, Nathan Schafer’s buttery, high baritone matches Kanakis' vocal tone and texture while his character delights in basking in Magda’s more radiant light. Our willingness to root for the lovers is key to the opera’s appeal and somehow softens the blow when the inevitabilities of real life come crashing through the door. Kanakis and Schafer’s voices are so well suited that their duets are naturally amplified by the pairing.

Contrasting and still complimenting Kanakis, Lauren Nash Silberstein is a bright, sparkling, soprano-voiced coquette as Magda’s maid (and the poet Prunier’s secret love) Lisette. The two women display an easy camaraderie, using their voices, knowing glances and interactions to establish a true friendship. Nicholas Huff and Jacob Lassetter are well cast as Prunier and Rambaldo, both have strong resonant voices and can easily command attention when the scene warrants.

One of the most surprising aspects of Puccini’s La Rondine is that it’s quite accessible for those new to opera. One doesn’t need to know the story or understand the language to enjoy the show. In addition to projected English lyrics, the simple plot synopsis and effective staging enable audiences to thoroughly enjoy the lush, pleasant score that follows the tragicomic love story.

The performances for La Rondine at Winter Opera have passed. Check out their next event, Holidays on the Hill at Dominic's on the Hill (5101 Wilson Avenue), December 12-13. The event includes a four-course dinner and concert sung by Winter Opera Artists. The next opera they will stage is Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi on January 20 and 22.

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