A rich man’s mistress falls for an impecunious stranger. The pair abscond, then run out of money. She admits her past to him before returning to her sugar-daddy benefactor.
There is a whiff of inconsequentiality about the plot of Puccini’s opera “La Rondine” (The Swallow), and Minnesota Opera’s new production at the Ordway on Saturday evening did not entirely solve it.
Director Octavio Cardenas framed the action by updating it to the World War I period, and introducing a doppelgänger of Magda, the swallow of the title.
At curtain-up this shadowy figure floated through Magda’s Parisian boudoir, undraping sheets from furniture. She was there again at the opera’s conclusion, surveying the emotional wreckage of her life in the intervening period.
Should she have done things differently? Does hindsight help us become better people or merely sharpen the regret for our mistaken actions?
Cardenas’ framing device helped ask these questions, but he ultimately overused it.
At the opera’s conclusion, a video projection showed Ruggero’s tombstone. He had been killed in battle after enlisting for wartime service.
Cue anguish from both the real-life and shadow versions of Magda and a mushily sentimentalized conclusion that even the arch-sentimentalist Puccini might have blanched at.
Much less attention was paid in Cardenas’ staging to the dynamics of characterization earlier in the opera.
In Act One’s party scene, no clear sense of the relationship between Magda and her rich protector Rambaldo was developed.
When Magda falls instantaneously in love with Ruggero in Act Two, what is she reacting against? Act One gave little indication.
Is Rambaldo kind, but tedious? Suave, but covertly manipulative? Is money the only source of his attraction?
None of these questions were answered. Both Celine Byrne (as Magda) and Levi Hernandez (as Rambaldo) sang impressively, but their Act One characters made a bland impression, with little sense of tension simmering below the surface.
The comic subplot involving Magda’s maid Lisette and the poet Prunier was crystal-clear by comparison.
Lisa Marie Rogali’s mischievous Lisette sparkled with spontaneity and was sung vibrantly. Beside her the Prunier of Christian Sanders cut a raffish figure, and their interplay lit the stage in its three-dimensionality.
Act Two, set in a Parisian brasserie, highlighted the handsome set designs of Sara Brown and the tasteful costumes of Montana Levi Blanco.
The chorus was excellent, making a roisterously tuneful contribution, and conductor Sergio Alapont secured buoyant playing from the orchestra.
But it was Act Three before the evening really caught fire dramatically, in the festering performance of Ruggero by New Jersey tenor Leonardo Capalbo.
Unleashing a voice with marked baritonal colorings and muscular heft, Capalbo railed at the rejection of his marriage proposal to Magda, the raw emotion of abandonment flung despairingly out into the Ordway arena.
It was a riveting conclusion to a production that seemed often prim and proper in its examination of what happens when sex and money form a fatal combination, and love itself becomes the victim.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.