By Bill Hirschman
Say what you will about artifice and overheated emoting, few art forms other than Harlequin novels can touch opera for depicting idealized love. What fascinates about Florida Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s rarely-seen La Rondine is how the fantasy of love collides with the realities of social-climbing and the class system.
Magda, the worldly kept woman of a financier, sings longingly of true love as if she was a dewy debutante. When the wealthy scion Ruggero falls in love with Magda in disguise and the courtesan suddenly succumbs to the fairy-tale romance she always dreamed of, we know she is deceiving herself. This isn’t Pretty Woman. It’s tragically ordained that her secret sordid past and his one-percenter family’s upright standing will doom any idyllic future.
While the equation seems like standard opera fare, the FGO production invests the mechanics with genuine compassion and pathos, due to a stirring performance by Elizabeth Caballero as Magda and led by Ramon Tebar in his first outing as FGO’s staff musical director.
With Caballero, the audience doesn’t need to glance up at the supertitles often because her expressive voice communicates what you need to know in broad strokes. The purity of her yearning for true love is so pungent, especially given her experience with pragmatic liaisons, that it’s impossible to sneer at her rapturous arias.
Caballero’s most thrilling moment comes in the first act when Magda, compared by her poet friend Prunier to the doomed swallow of the opera’s title, dismisses his cynicism with a paean to her vision of love. Her exquisite voice soars to a tender softness in the higher register, then slides smoothly to a full-throated and passionate middle register like the respiration of a swelling heart.
The rest of the cast is adequate if not inspiring. Bruno Ribeiro brings an innocence to Ruggero as a first-time visitor to Paris and a credible passion to falling in love at first sight. Daniel Shirley is appropriately flamboyant as the social-climbing poet, although he struggles with some of the higher notes. Corrine Winters provides a strong presence as Magda’s saucy maid who Prunier deigns to slum with.
Tebar, who has guest conducted frequently at FGO, gets a lush clear flow from the orchestra and elicits commendably unmannered performances from his cast. His failure is preventing the orchestra from repeatedly overpowering every singer other than Caballero during the first act, especially Shirley who doesn’t seem to have Caballero’s power.
Director/choreographer Nicola Bowie fluidly moves her chess pieces around the stage like figures in an ill-fated waltz. When the lovers are courting in a beer hall, elegantly clothed ballroom dancers swirl in a pas de deux. She also stages the first act in Magda’s crowded artist salon so that Ruggero never sees Magda, making it plausible that he doesn’t recognize her early in the second act while not taxing our belief in how poor optometry must have been back then.
The original 1860 setting has been transported to the Lost Generation era of Paris in the 1920s, which succeeds at making the work seem more relevant. It also gives costume coordinator Camilla Haith the opportunity to pull out of FGO’s closet a rainbow of beaded flapper dresses and feathered tiaras plus knife-crisp tuxedos. When Bowie’s troupe dances the Charleston and can-can to Puccini’s score, it inexplicably never seems literally off-beat.
La Rondine is not an overwhelming evening, but thanks to Puccini’s gift for melody and Caballero’s skills at bringing it to life, it’s worth the visit.
La Rondine plays 8 p.m. Jan. 27, Feb. 1 & 4, 2012; 2 p.m. Jan. 29 at Florida Grand Opera at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.|Tickets $15-$229. Contact (305) 949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org