TAMPA — La Rondine has been called a "conversational" opera, and that is an especially apt description of the first act, in which Magda, the kept woman of a banker, holds a soiree in her Parisian salon. Puccini threw everything he had into the music — there are suggestions of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly — and the act unfolds beautifully, like one long continuous song. But then it's as if the composer lost interest, and the rest of the opera largely consists of elegant note-spinning with little drama behind it, except for a thrilling ensemble by the full company in Act 2. The main problem is that not much happens in the libretto.
Opera Tampa has a good group of singers for La Rondine, which opened Friday in Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Rochelle Bard is playing Magda for the first time, and she is ravishing in "Chi il bel sogno," bringing color and tonal security to the shimmering high notes of the signature aria. Bard is a pleasure to hear, but she lacks the hardness — Magda is basically a prostitute, after all — to be credible as a fallen woman who tries for one last chance at true love.
The unlikely object of Magda's desire is Ruggero, a callow fellow from the south of France. Gerard Powers has the lyric tenor to do the role justice, if only its music wasn't so bland. In one of several revisions, Puccini wrote an Act 1 aria for Ruggero, but it isn't very memorable, so Anton Coppola, the Opera Tampa conductor, composed his own. Coppola's aria for Ruggero is a dramatic romanza that sticks out like a sore thumb because it isn't Puccini. Coppola does better with the orchestra, drawing out the elegant nuances of the score.
Bruce Reed, playing the society poet Prunier, and Diana McVey as Magda's intrusive maid, Lisette, make a sexy, comic couple, though McVey's shtick gets a bit too busy at times. Mark Schnaible doesn't have a lot to do as Magda's banker, Rambaldo. The commentary by Magda's friends (Alexandra Rafalo, Jacqueline Shoda-Iwasaki, Jessica Ann Best), is delightful, and Best casts a haunting soliloquy ("Don't trust in love") over the Act 2 nightclub scene.
There was an unhappy glitch in Act 1 Friday when the supertitle projector crashed as Magda and her gal pals communed over coffee. To be without supertitles is far from a disaster — it can force you to focus more closely on the music — but in this case, the computerized message "No Signal" flashed on the digital scenery for three long minutes. It was an annoyance for anyone who loves opera and live theater, in part, because going to a performance is such a refreshing break from technology.
Director Joachim Schamberger's stock in trade is his "virtual theater" design, and La Rondine is the third Opera Tampa production to use his video projections for scenery. The first two acts mainly utilized images of Paris as a backdrop, like the fuzzy Eiffel Tower that materialized when Ruggero sang his Act 1 aria. The generic look of the second act didn't help the slapdash staging of the nightclub scene. But film of the sea and changing light in Act 3 provided a brilliant canvas on which Magda undid her relationship with Ruggero.
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Next season, Opera Tampa will stage two operas plus a concert and gala. Lehar's The Merry Widow will open the season Nov. 12-14, featuring Bard in the title role, which she sang last year with St. Petersburg Opera. On Feb. 24, singers, chorus and orchestra will perform arias and ensembles, followed by a gala where the Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award, named for the company's conductor, will be presented to Placido Domingo (though the legendary tenor is not slated to sing). Elizabeth de Trejo (Romeo et Juliette, Lucia di Lammermoor) returns as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata April 29 and May 1, 2011.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.