Sunday, March 17, 2019

A swish-looking, pacy and effective La Rondine at Alameda's Island City Opera

Love and happiness can neither be taught nor bought no matter how much life is glamourised on the exterior. Magda di Civry knows, the carefree but questioning courtesan and protagonist in Puccini’s lesser performed opera that premiered in 1917, La Rondine. Not unlike Violetta ValĂ©ry in Verdi’s similarly mid-19th century Parisian setting of La traviata, Magda falls in love and begins a new life with a passionate young gentleman. Whereas Violetta is robbed of love through conservative societal attitudes and terminal illness, Magda gives it up on her own, unable to find comfort in a life in which the past might catch up and blaming herself before deciding on a return to her former existence. For Violetta, we know she truly loved. In Magda’s case, we’re never so certain. Of the two, you sense that Magda is the more troubled, anxious and self-doubtful. 
Eileen Meredith as Magda and Alex Boyer as Ruggero

Another romance plays out in contrast. Like adding salt to wound, love seems to come so much easier for Lisette and Prunier. They, like Magda and Ruggero belong to different classes - she a servant in Magda’s household, he a poet and aesthete. But in the end, if it’s one thing, it’s Magda’s personal burden that gives this operetta oddity from Puccini its greatest substance.

She is ‘La Rondine’, the fleet-flying swallow who returns to her nest and where we find Puccini at his most mercurial. It’s hardly a walk in the park pulling it off but Island City Opera made a fine show of it on Friday night, the third in a run of four performances. And it came with early 20th century optimism, as new love itself promises, in a swish-looking, pacy and effective production from director Jane Erwin Hammett. 

Based in Alameda, just an hour outside downtown San Francisco by public transport, Island City Opera is a smallish company that not only serves its local community but deserves attention from audiences a little further afield. They perform at Elks Lodge (taxidermy included), in a banquet-sized, broad spaced hall that has some limitations but the experience served is inviting, value-for-money and delivered with quality.

To one side of the hall, under well-determined tempi from Music Director Jonathan Khuner, the 21-member orchestra played with diligence and strong-sounding expertise. On the whole, the darting rhythms and shifts of mood were handled appealingly. Hints of Puccini’s popular previous works shine through so vividly at times they almost railroad the immediacy at hand, as do threads of what was to come in his final opera, Turandot. The strings could’ve captured the score’s inbuilt elegance with a little more fullness and vigour and the volume outdid the singers at times but the overall effect was one of buoyancy and vitality.

Soprano Eileen Meredith, a regular artist at Island City Opera, performed admirably in bringing home the crisis Magda faces in finding personal happiness. Fittingly, Meredith exuded both worldliness and the world-weary, doe-eyed love and the quandary it leads to, doing so with lovely gracefulness in voice and pearliness of tone. One quibble would be with fogging the text on occasion but Meredith rose time and again to impress from her jewel box of beauties and a prized-sounding luminous top range that both fired and silkened a delectable coloratura.

I was especially taken by Alex Boyer’s Ruggero and Sergio Gonzalez’s Prunier - both excellently sung and infused with ardency and character. Boyer’s resonantly warm-raftered tenor captured the young and besotted Ruggero’s passions superbly. Lighting fire to clearly enunciated text, Gonzalez applied his bright elastic tenor to his moustached and cheery Prunier. Lush soprano Elizabeth Russ took exuberant control of Magda’s affairs and jumped into her own as a Lisette of simple needs. Surrounding members of the elegantly dressed bourgeoisie, students and Magda’s friends Yvette, Bianca and Suzy - to whom Christabel Nunoo, Liesl McPherrin and Katja Heuzeroth brought playful potency and harmonious voice - filled out the narrow depth of stage to satisfying effect. 

From heartfelt arias to swooning duets and thrillingly rambunctious chorus work (Act 2 at Bulliers pulled out a knockout display from the Island City Opera Chorus), La Rondine, despite its sometimes exhausting restlessness, can charm indeed. In the end your heart goes out to Ruggero. But losing her as he does in their swanky apartment on the French Riviera, Magda makes you feel that it was for the best. Perhaps more than the conservative moralising she assumed was her enemy, marriage and kids were obviously the last straw. Great work Island City Opera! 

La Rondine 
Island City Opera
Elks Lodge, Alameda, CA
Until 17th March 2019

Production Photo: courtesy of Island City Opera

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