Review | Washington Concert Opera frees a rare bird with superb ‘La Rondine’

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The only thing wrong with Washington Concert Opera’s energizing performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine” on Sunday at the Lisner Auditorium was that I could hear it just once. Oh, and also the legroom at the Lisner, which can make a night at the opera feel like a seat in coach.

One of these problems is getting solved. Hearty cheers met the preconcert announcement by WCO executive director Meg Sippey that the Lisner would be overhauling its seating over the summer.

The other problem, meanwhile, is getting mitigated. Though they will remain one-off performances, the just-announced WCO 2024-2025 season will include not two, but three productions: Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” (Nov. 24), Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” (March 1) and Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” (April 13, 2025, with soprano Angel Blue in the title role). Subscriptions go on sale April 14, and I’d look into that.

As might be suggested by that trio of forthcoming titles, WCO specializes in polishing hidden gems for special occasions, and Sunday’s rendezvous with Puccini’s odd little tale of doomed love was no exception.

Though “La Rondine” was first commissioned in 1913 as a Viennese operetta (with a libretto by Giuseppe Adami, who went on to write “Il tabarro” and “Turandot”), the outbreak of World War I delayed its premiere until 1917 and necessitated its relocation to Monaco’s Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Its warmish reception quickly cooled as the opera traveled. In program notes, Peter Russell cites the New York Sun’s salty appraisal of the opera’s Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1928: “The afternoon off a genius.”

A century after Puccini’s death, “La Rondine” appears to have wings once again. Right now, there are simultaneous productions at the Metropolitan Opera (through April 20), Teatro alla Scala (through April 20) and the Vienna Volksoper (through May 10) — but the opera remains something of a rare bird.

This makes sense, I suppose. Unless you’re a big “Bachelorette” fan, it can be hard to summon the proper pathos concerning the flighty, fickle Parisian courtesan Magda de Civry, her desertion of her wealthy “protector” Rombaldo, her dalliance in romantic love with the rugged Ruggero, and her abrupt moral correction, which comes on like an allergy attack and ruins everything.

It can also be a challenge to negotiate the opera’s tonal shift from lighthearted musings and longings to crushing heartbreak. “It starts as an operetta, concludes as an opera, and is worthy of a regular place in the operatic canon,” writes conductor and WCO artistic director Antony Walker in his program note.

These challenges aside, “La Rondine” fizzes with everything you might like about Puccini — sumptuous melodies, lovely ensemble work, a surplus of easy charm and a stash of good one-liners (“Money is so expensive!”). But it’s largely up to the singers to get “La Rondine” off the ground, a task well-met across the cast on Sunday.

Soprano Ailyn Pérez was simply stellar as Magda. She’s a beautifully self-possessed singer, with a wonderfully expressive instrument — warm and earthy lows, jewel-clear highs, magnificent dynamic control and an artful sense of dramatic tailoring (and smartly deployed rubato). Her first-act aria completing the “Canzone di Doretta” of poet Pruniere (well handled by the steely young tenor Jonathan Johnson) was an early highlight of the evening. I also loved her interplay in Act II with the men of the Washington Concert Opera chorus, led by David Hanlon.

Tenor Mario Chang made a stunning turn as Ruggero. Chang, who appeared recently with Pérez in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” offered remarkably cool and clear singing — a lovely foil to the hot coil of Pérez’s voice. For a concert performance, he also brought a sharp sense of drama, earning sympathy rather than inspiring pity in his third-act aria (“Ma come puoi lasciarmi”).

Soprano Deanna Breiwick was a delight as maid turned failed actress turned maid Lisette, her easy comic chops never dulling the blade of her instrument. And baritone Javier Arrey made a formidable Rombaldo — though he might consider upping the jerk factor a few notches. Lovely ensemble pieces (“Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso”) lent sufficient bustling energy to the second act at Cafe Bullier. Soprano Natalie Conte, soprano Tess Ottinger and mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar contributed charismatic trio work throughout.

The Washington Concert Opera Orchestra under Walker’s direction sounded bright and vivid (even against the Lisner’s stingy acoustics) and offered sensitive, responsive playing that beautifully couched the singers and highlighted Puccini’s many atmospheric and rhythmic flourishes — many of which feel proto-cinematic. (It’s a score full of dances — subdued tangos, ecstatic waltzes, even, as Russell notes, a fox trot.)

Walker’s sustained effervescence through the first two acts helped deepen the plunge of the third. And the music was buoyed by especially decorous playing by concertmaster Sally McLain, harpist Eric Sabatino and flutist Nicolette Oppelt.

The best feature of Sunday’s performance — and the grand ambition for any concert staging, really — was that for long stretches of the evening, I forgot completely that there were no sets, costumes, or extraneous bells or whistles. (Correction: There were bells at the very end.)

The singing and the playing were more than enough to fill in this charming opera’s several gaps. And if you missed this “La Rondine” just be patient — much like the swallow herself, it’s bound to return.

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