What do you do when given a story with virtually no development? How do you present it to your audience?

Steven Daigle and Benton Hess, the respective stage and music directors of Eastman Opera Theatre, tackled this issue with last week’s amazing production of Puccini’s penultimate opera, “La Rondine.”

Critics have described Puccini’s “Sparrow,” as “La Rondine” is often referred to, as a turkey. They have lamented its slow pace – though incomparable to Wagner – all the while forgetting that this opera, like all of Puccini’s, possesses his soaring melodies, whimsical interjections and fervent pathos.

Based on the audience’s response, the critics were wrong. One thousand seven hundred people attended the large-scale opera this year, causing a shortfall of programs on Sunday, the fourth night. People could be heard singing the tunes while leaving, some were seen wiping their eyes and others were smiling in contemplation of Puccini’s message.

At the heart of the story is Magda, an aging courtesan who is caught looking into her past, trying to recapture the love and passion she once possessed. Lengthy discussions of distant memories and dark allusions to the future’s fated hand take up the entirety of the first act.

Magda finds her love in the second act, forcing her to break off the relationship she had with her latest “client,” Rambaldo.

The concluding act opens on an unfortunate day a year later, when among talk of marriage and children, she removes herself from her present lover in order to protect him and his family from her life and history.

The subplot between her poet-friend Prunier and her maid Lisette provided an amusing counterpoint to the tragedy of Magda’s life.

Differing from other prominent Puccini operas such as “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly,” “La Rondine” provides little more than a backdrop of conversation.

Magda lives in France. She is well-to-do, which affords her the time to lament and philosophize. This is essentially the purpose of the two-and-a-half-hour production that we must take time to watch the sparrows, to contemplate love.

Is love the “Rebellious Bird” of Bizet’s “Carmen” or the “soft little dove” of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflte?” Puccini answered this question for us. Unfortunately, without a break from philosophy, this can drag the performance to a halt.

How did Steve Daigle tackle this? He added the character Magda in her old age. This provides a wonderful backdrop for the production.

The older Magda – played by Katherine Withers and Gillian Bell – is a reality, a person who is looking into their past for love and pathos. Or maybe the mysterious woman draped in black is her spirit, soaring through her past into the afterlife? It is left ambiguous.

Secondly, Daigle, along with Mary Griswold, created minimal, movable sets. We are reminded of the simplicity of the opera itself through the flat sets.

The production begins and ends as a memory – each detail is added until the physical Magda is enveloped in history. She is free to observe but never to interact. This rule is broken as the opera closes, when she comforts her former lover as the world is deconstructed around them. The stage is left bare at the end, leaving only a backdrop of impressionistic dollops.

Add to this Hess’s remarkable work connecting the orchestra and vocalists, his interpretation of Puccini’s score and his excellent leadership, and we are served with a wonderful production.

So much of the orchestra sounded wonderful. It was drawn to a level equal to those on stage.

Particularly amazing was the large waltz in the second act, when a somewhat inactive stage relies on the vitality of the orchestra below.

Congratulations should be given especially to the leads, whose time and hard work, coupled with enthusiasm and emotion, empowered the audience to reconcile their lost desires and gave the audience a fresh look at the old story of love and sacrifice.

Magda was performed by Jennifer Gliere and Aubrie Willaert, and her maid, Lisette, was played by Susan Lamberson and Sarah Howes. Ruggero, Magda’s young love interest, was performed by Min Jin and Kevin Park, and the poet Prunier was performed by Grant Knox and Jim Barbato.

Also noted for their wonderful performances are Marc Webster and Sam Haddad, who played Rambaldo, Magda’s client during the first and second acts.

Even an opera with as simple a message as “La Rondine” must require so much coordination, leadership, and individual energy. And, as witnessed by the audience, such a production is well worth the investment.

Coyne can be reached at ccoyne@campustimes.org.

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