I will sometimes go into the theater with hypothesis in hand. For instance, this one about La Rondine: its supposedly clumsy dramaturgy had more to do with people missing the point than with actual faults in the work itself – was it probable that the masterly dramatic mind behind Boheme, Tosca, and Butterfly could have fumbled that late in his career? It reminded me of what a professor of mine had once blurted out when discussing the middle of Dr Faustus – “I wish Marlowe hadn’t written these scenes!” I knew what she meant; between the noble questing of the beginning and the sublime tragedy of the end, there are scenes of low farce. But it seemed to me that those scenes are central to the meaning of the play – given great potential, and an amazing chance, most people will squander their opportunities on the equivalent of squirting wine in the Pope’s face, and so the bumptious comedy points to the moral even more than the high-toned tragic speeches do. I’ll admit to a bad habit of listening to operas without reading along in the libretto, but I vaguely knew Magda in Rondine had made a choice between love and comfort, and I was developing the possibilities of a whole Dr Faustus/Rondine comparison in my head, and just as I am apparently the only inhabitant of the blogosphere who has written at any length about both Nathan Gunn and Barry Zito, so I figured this was my big chance to be the only person in the history of the world ever to compare Rondine and Faustus.
It turns out I was wrong, though. It is possible for the dramatic genius whose works have both blessed and oppressed the operatic stage to produce an inept drama. After the first part of the recent San Francisco Opera production, I was thinking, That was lovely – the second act was maybe too reminiscent of the Café Momus scene in Boheme, but still all very lovely. . . . I left the theater after the second part thinking, Whoa! That sure went off the tracks.
I’d like to make a distinction between being tired of certain Puccini warhorses and dismissing Puccini. The very fact that certain works of his are so much in demand that any habitual opera-goer is sick to death of them is a tribute to his genius. You could argue that his success salted the earth for succeeding generations of composers, raising expectations of lyrical and dramatic success combined with popularity that no one else could live up to, or should have to live up to, especially under changed social and financial circumstances. Years ago I read that, even though he was seriously ill, Puccini traveled to Vienna to hear the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, and took the time afterwards to congratulate the young Schoenberg. I’ve always liked that story, since it indicates a generosity and openness that I admire. I’d like to read a good biography of Puccini to get an accurate picture, since there is no trace of any such attitude in the playbill’s Rondine articles; according to them, Puccini was jealous of the success of other composers (notably both Strausses), was contemptuous of any Viennese experimentation, and longed to achieve the dubious goal of writing an operetta, which seems to me like being able to weave a great tapestry but aching to dominate the crafts fair through the mastery of macramé. Maybe Gockley & Co. are just trying to reassure the Philistines, who seem to be in the ascendancy at the house (how ironic that this season opened with Samson).
It was a lovely production; all three acts had a different and gorgeous Art Deco set, each of which received a round of applause while the music was playing, for they were that kind of set and it was that kind of audience. Angela Gheorgiu made her local debut, and she does indeed have a strikingly lovely voice. The first act opened with a group scene, and I wasn’t sure which one was our star, until she moved towards the on-stage piano to sing her famous aria, and I noticed her dress was slit up to there, and I realized, well, obviously, there’s our star. I didn’t recognize her because for some reason she wore an incredibly unflattering Gidget-does-Lulu hairstyle. Considering the role wigs have played in her story (for those who don’t know, she was the one playing Micaela in Carmen to whom Volpe said, “That blonde wig is going on stage whether you’re under it or not”), I was surprised she agreed to such harsh-looking hair. I’m all about the hair. Anna Christy, whom I keep seeing playing maids, was both pert and charming, but of course since this is an attempt at an operetta Magda’s maid is treated with condescension and ultimately is put in her place. I like Misha Didyk (I have friends who hate him), who is the tenor and therefore, needless to say, the male romantic lead, but I didn’t have strong feelings about him either way in this role.
As for where the work goes wrong, it’s the third act. After the café scene in the second act, which I needn’t describe because it’s so similar to Act 2 of Boheme (though I would like to offer sincere praise to the hilariously tacky disco ball glittering in the back of the set), Magda has run off with her young lover. There is no Violetta-type sacrifice here, though – the woman of the world and her ardent young lover are in a fashionable resort, just as stylish as the first two acts, running up the bills. They sing about how much in love they are, in a duet of ill-advised length. I can accept this sort of thing from lovers with a mythic aura, like Tristan and Isolde or Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton, but there’s only so much of other people’s bland banal happiness I want to sit through. The maid and her boyfriend show up and then leave. Our lovers realize they are in serious debt. (That’s something I’d prefer to hear them go on about – as one who has spent not wisely but too well myself, I await the great operatic treatment of debt. Other than Rheingold, of course.) The youth wants to marry Magda, but such are the benefits of her worldly experience that she knows such a marriage would kill his saintly mother. Again unlike Traviata, no parent is brought on stage to make such a plea for him- or herself, so instead of a dramatically interesting confrontation we are given a supposition, and a clichéd one at that. (Being partly of Latin descent myself, I have some familiarity with such saintly old women, and personally I’m figuring that the mother is actually a raging controlling bitch.) Magda realizes that mounting debts and society's rigid rules require her to abandon her young lover, who, we must take on faith based on his tenor voice, is the great true love that would last the rest of her life, and instead she turns to – not poverty, disease, and a lonely death, like Violetta, but the wealthy arms of her rich protector. I thought there would be another scene or two after she makes this choice, but no – that’s it! Since her protector was played by the handsome and distinguished-looking Philip Skinner, and he obviously has pretty elastic views of what he requires from her in the way of fidelity (as shown by his willingness to take her back, despite her running off with the young lover, and despite the really awful hair), I’m thinking she should maybe count her blessings.
I was glad to have seen Rondine at last, and I would enjoy seeing it again. But it filled me with ironic skepticism rather than a warm glow. Unlike such operas as Carmen or Trovatore, with their sympathetic treatment of outsiders and those alien to the usual opera audience, this is a work aimed at warming the toes of the privileged (so I guess Puccini did succeed in writing an operetta). It is designed for those who have chosen, or ended up in, comfort, and want to luxuriate without consequences in the pretense that they might have had a great romance instead (so I guess Puccini also succeeded in writing an ur-chick flick). It’s an essentially nostalgic work, like Boheme, though it lacks that work’s real sense of poverty and sickness, however obscured those qualities might be by a golden haze of remembrance.
I was kind of stunned to realize that the plot of Rondine is essentially the same as the plot of Mae West’s Sex, which I had seen a few days earlier. Mae handles the whole thing with greater aplomb, and there’s no silly pretense that marrying her rich older friend rather than her handsome young stud is some sort of tragic dilemma. Both were written around the time when “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” was a big hit, so the fate of what the times would have called women of the world as well as the need for women to find financial support seem to have been popular themes. Maybe this reflects the growing independence, sexual and financial, of women. Maybe it reflects the largely female audience’s need to see dramatic interest in their lives – though as dilemmas go, choosing between love and money is sort of like deciding between Paris and London for your annual vacation – it’s a dilemma of privilege. It’s not as if we’re talking about coal miners and their wives here. Maybe it just reflects a certain self-indulgent need to feel sorry for oneself, and to reflect weepily on what might have been from the comfort of our padded red velvet subscription seats at the opera. Magda’s tragedy? Magda’s dilemma? Cry me a river, sweetiepie – at least your cage is gilded.