The road not taken: Puccini’s “La Rondine,”(The Swallow) runs through November 26th at Opera San Jose. Puccini was a master at weaving a tragic story with his haunting arias of sadness and longing, and his ‘La Rondine’ is no different.’The Swallow,’ takes place in France and is the impassioned love story of Magda, a mistress of her keeper Rambaldo, who sings of love before money with her poet friend, Prunier as a newcomer, Ruggero, arrives at Rambaldo’s salon. Later that night, in a move to disguise herself, Magda goes out on the town dressed as a commoner and finds Ruggero at the same venue. After dancing, they see the maid with Prunier and they try to hide. Ruggero is whisked away and Magda, Prunier and the maid toast to love as Rambaldo arrives at the same nightclub. Magda declares her love for another and refuses to come home, so Rambaldo retreats.
The last act is set several months in the future with Madga and Ruggero living an idlic lifestyle on the French Riviera. Writing to his mother, Ruggero asks permission to marry Magda and imagines what married life with children would be like. Magda is worried that her former life as a courtesan would make her unacceptable to Ruggaro’s family. When Prunier arrives with a letter from Rambaldo asking for her to come back, she refuses. As Ruggero returns with the happy news that they may marry, Magda is an unable to keep her secret any longer and outs herself and says she’s leaving for good. He begs her to stay — she does not and returns home back to Rambaldo, just like a swallow returning to its nest.
Musically, Puccini uses the popular dances of the time: polkas, waltzes and, perhaps more surprisingly, a tango. In another unusual move, Puccini chose to have a real piano played onstage as the Tenor begins the aria, “Doretta,” which the Soprano then finishes. Mason Gates as Prunier and Amanda Kingston, as Magda enthralled the audience from the very start with the vitality and joy they emitted during the first act.
The passion in each couple was believable and earnest. Elena Galván needs special mention for her portrayal of Lisette — her sassy, flirtatious spirit was fun, spirited and deftly executed. Each of the couple’s voices was very well balanced and no one in the cast was a weak link.
The music and story flows smoothly and tends to be on the happy, joyous side, but suddenly in the third act, we have a drastic change which feels forced. The audience was left slightly stunned when Magda refuses to accept Ruggero back to her arms after his expressing a wish to marry her. Perhaps this is the underlying reason why this particular opera isn’t performed very much — we wish for an ending, not for the story to suddenly stop. The fact that Magda was a courtesan was not a subject explored in the previous acts, and it seemed an unlikely reason for her to leave so abruptly. An enjoyable evening of Puccini opera for certain, but with rather an odd ending.