La Rondine is one of Puccini's less-known operas, compared with favorites like La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Tosca. So Opera Tampa has spiced up its marketing campaign with steamy photos of soprano Rochelle Bard draped around a hunky, tattooed model.
"People don't know La Rondine, so they're trying to sell it as sexy and beautiful as it is. They're trying to make that point, and I think they made it. And possibly reach a younger audience, too,'' Bard said after a recent rehearsal of the production.
Sex is often used to sell opera — "Let the seduction begin,'' reads an ad for Florida Grand Opera's "red-hot'' Carmen this month in Miami — but it also happens to make sense when it comes to La Rondine, which means "The Swallow'' and is set in the demimonde of pre-World War I Paris.
Bard sang the title role in Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow last season with St. Petersburg Opera. Now in her debut with Opera Tampa in La Rondine, she plays Magda, an upscale courtesan who is kept in jewelry and furs by a banker. But she yearns for true love, which she thinks she finds with a young man named Ruggero from the South of France.
The most famous courtesan in opera is Violetta in Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata, and indeed, La Rondine is sometimes called "the poor man's Traviata.'' Violetta also has her young man, Alfredo, but there is a crucial difference between the two kept women seeking true love, in the view of Opera Tampa conductor Anton Coppola.
"In Traviata, Violetta and Alfredo are sort of contemporaries, and it's his father who comes in and persuades her to give up his son,'' Coppola said. "Now what I've emphasized in the last couple of productions of Rondine I've done is to make sure that the director understands that there is a generation gap between Magda and her young man. By making Magda a woman in her 40s, that immediately separates it from being a poor man's Traviata.''
Bard, though, at 34, and singing Magda for the first time, is younger than the tenor playing Ruggero, Gerard Powers. He is a seasoned Puccini interpreter who has performed the role a number of times, including productions with New York City Opera and Utah Opera. How will that affect the Magda-as-cougar theme?
"We'll see how it works out,'' director Joachim Schamberger said during the first week of rehearsal. "I think their music shows the differences between them.''
Puccini was never happy with La Rondine, which was his effort to marry Viennese operetta to Italian opera, and he revised it several times, with limited success. "This stray blossom of Puccini's fancy'' is what a New York critic called the work in a review of its 1928 U.S. premiere, dismissing it as "the afternoon off of a genius.''
Still, there is a lot of beautiful music in the opera, one of the first by Puccini that Coppola studied in his long career. (The conductor turned 93 in March.) For the Opera Tampa production he is taking a few liberties with the score.
Originally, Ruggero didn't have an aria to introduce himself in Act 1, but Puccini wrote one for a subsequent revision that is often used today, though it's not very inspiring. "It starts out kind of nice, but then it wanders off,'' Coppola said. "He put a high B flat in it at the end. If it gets any applause, that's why it does, that high B flat. But it's as though Puccini's heart wasn't in it.''
So Coppola has written a new Act 1 aria for the tenor, setting the words of librettist Giuseppe Adami to his music. "Call it arrogance — call it anything you like — but I decided to write my own,'' said the conductor and composer, whose opera Sacco & Vanzetti has a Puccini-like flavor. "I know this sounds immodest, but I just think it is more effective. I think the audience — and Magda — get a better feel for who this young man is. It stimulates her interest in him.''
As Coppola points out, it's not unheard of to fiddle around with opera scores, even classics. "Wagner did the same thing with Norma,'' he said. "He wrote a bass aria that sometimes replaces the one Bellini wrote. Also in The Barber of Seville, a fellow called Pietro Romani wrote a different aria for Bartolo in the first act that used to be used'' instead of Rossini's music for the character.
Schamberger thinks Coppola's tenor aria is great. "If anybody can do that, it's maestro, someone who knows Puccini so intimately, who has such love, respect and passion for his operas,'' the director said. "I think it's a wonderful thing because it keeps opera alive.''
Coppola has also touched up other parts of the score. "He has added slightly different endings in the last few bars of all three acts,'' Schamberger said. "For example, Act 2 usually ends with the high note of Ruggero and Magda. From a directorial point of view, I always found that odd, to bring down the curtain while they sing, to cut them off. Maestro felt similar and has added a few bars and gives it a nicer ending.''
Paris in projections
La Rondine is the third Opera Tampa production to be directed by Schamberger, 41, all featuring his "virtual theater'' design, using, for the most part, computerized video projections instead of a physical set. It is a cost-saving measure, eliminating the need to build or rent scenery, and it can be aesthetically effective, as in last season's production of Puccini's Suor Angelica.
However, the staging in November of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor got out of hand with some of its atmospherics, such as the lurid image of the ghostly face of a murdered girl in the Lammermoor fountain.
"Every opera has a psychological aspect to it, but this one is more straightforward,'' Schamberger said of La Rondine. "We decided to go really realistic in the storytelling. We'll use back projections that mainly set the scene in Paris and on the Riviera.''
Later, the German director wrote in an e-mail, "We try to marry solid set and projections in a way that allows for realistic storytelling in a somewhat lucid environment. The same way as Magda's real tangible world meets her lucid dreams.''
In many ways, La Rondine is the most realistic of Puccini's operas, ending not with a grandly tragic death, but with the breakup of a relationship that was never meant to be. Although there is a version of the opera in which Magda commits suicide at the end, by walking into the sea, the Opera Tampa production has her leaving the callow Ruggero.
"Magda says that with her past she is too contaminated for Ruggero, and she walks away, leaving him crying on the floor,'' soprano Bard said.
Schamberger emphasizes the universal quality of Magda's story. "La Rondine is about a woman who longs for a change in her life. She dreams about it in Act 1, and she makes it happen in Act 2. Then reality creeps in in Act 3. I think we can all relate to that more than the big life-and-death situations in other Puccini dramas.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.