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‘La Rondine' at Opera San Jose

Opera San Jose presents Puccini’s rarely performed ‘La Rondine’

THE LATER Puccini opera that almost fell through the cracks got its local premiere at the California Theatre last weekend thanks to Opera San José. Not unlike the Strauss ballet Schlagobers, La rondine was a victim of bad timing; Puccini’s “summer romance” was composed in the run-up to World War I (and premiered during it at Monte Carlo), while the frothy Strauss, whose title means “whipped cream,” arrived just after the war when German theater was preoccupied with skyrocketing inflation, widespread poverty and atoning for national war guilt.
The war weighed heavily on Puccini, who, upon accepting the commission, decided in favor of a fully scored opera instead of the operetta he had been asked for, suggesting either distraction or compromise or both. Unlike others of his operas, the big tune of Act 1—Chi il bel sogno di Doretta poté indovinar?—is not matched by another unforgettable melody later on. Nevertheless, Puccini the professional delivers a worthy, entertaining and satisfying arc from the Parisian mistress Magda’s restless hunger for true love to her resignation in the face of the naive Ruggero’s rural standards of purity and virtue, in 1860s France.

Opera San José costumer Elizabeth Poindexter and set designer Larry Hancock echoed that era (unlike other recent revivals that favored updated settings). The cast featured on Sunday afternoon introduced Bosnian-born Jasmina Halimic, who, in the title role, like a swallow, must ultimately rejoin her Parisian “flock.” Initially, she is the lover of the wealthy, older Rambaldo (veteran Silas Elash) but falls in love with the unsophisticated Ruggero (company resident Alexander Boyer). The soprano/tenor lovers have a counterpart in the roles of the poet Prunier (J. Raymond Meyers) and household maid Lisette (Jennie Litster), both Opera San José regulars. Apparently inspired in part by Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Puccini finds all manner of opportunities to avail waltz tempos. This tilts the opera’s flavor toward dance. As if to further sweeten the recipe, Puccini wrote in this score the biggest, by far, harp part of his career, thereby qualifying orchestra harpist Karen Thielen for a very loud “Bravo!”

In Act 1, Prunier introduces his latest creation—“Doretta’s dream”—but breaks off having not yet finished it. Magda takes it up and sums it up in the one scene from this opera that shows up on recital programs. Vocally and theatrically, Halimic delivered a glamorous performance, allowing only slight evidence that this was her first time in the role—as was the case with just about everybody else onstage—and a strident edge to her very top notes. Boyer’s shy country boy remained sympathetic throughout. Meyers, in contrast, etched his more complex character with wit, impatience and a touch of deceit. Litster matched him at every turn while both provided an ideal foil for the “doomed” summer lovers.

The big moment for the chorus and dancers was Act 2, set in Bullier’s dance hall (a counterpart to Café Momus in La bohème). Lise la Cour provided vivid choreography. Stage director Jose Maria Condemi had everybody doing something all the time in that act but showed a fine emotional sensitivity in the intimate moments elsewhere. David Rohrbaugh and his orchestra provided a solid and colorful foundation.

La Rondine an Opera San Jose production plays April 29, May 1, 4 and 7 at 8pm and May 2 and 9 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $51-$91. (408.437.4450)