La Rondine should be one of Puccini's greatest operas, and though it does contain some ravishing music, an actual encounter with the work disappoints. Why should it be great? Although Puccini had pretensions to melodrama and tragedy, it's not actually his most natural habitat, and despite (or more likely because of) his love of cruelty (and technical limitations notwithstanding), he doesn't actually have the artistic means to represent it wholly seriously in art: the plush upholstery of his orchestral writing and arching eroticism of the vocal lines reveal a sensual gratification in pain that blends the two inseparably, giving us an insight into this important partnership, but one which is pornographic in effect because it's so manifestly for his and the audience's pleasure. His other big turn on, sentimentality, is brought to a perfect head in La Boheme and is the main reason why that piece is so successful - he's not only working totally within his area of expertise, but also wholly within his means, and the result is without question his masterpiece. La Rondine is the only post Boheme opera of his that intentionally returns to the exquisitely finished light café-music schmaltz that he is most at home with, and indeed there are several moments which are directly comparable in the two pieces - see for instance the bustling orchestral opening, the bon-homie of the first scene, the bristling colours of Act II, the soupy love duets. La Rondine then is beautifully made, with its endlessly tinkling, humming, pentatonic orchestral canvas, which at times flows with greater ease than anywhere else in his output, and as ever there are also gorgeous arias in their way unmatched by his contemporaries. But despite these passing beauties, the totality doesn't quite convince: we get the feeling that his heart is only half in it. (Is it cruelty that's missing after all?) The libretto by Giuseppe Adami may be to blame for the lack of true comedy - this is meant to be an operetta, but the jokes are very thin indeed, and the "numbers" such as they are, rather tame dramatically and musically and sometimes even bland by his own luscious standards. Despite the evident mastery, ease and fluency, something vital (in both senses of the word) that was present in its slightly more naive predecessor is simply absent here.
Nicolas Joel's now well travelled and well known production sets the action in 1920's Paris, but with Art Nouveau designs (by Ezio Frigerio) which look like they date from about 35 years before that. The fun and dazzle of 20's living combined with the decadence of a Lalique/Mucha aesthetic is an indulgently heady combination and totally in line with the sound of the score. Unfortunately the direction is largely very static which is not good when the libretto is already so undynamic. I found it difficult to be too engaged, though that must also be partly to do with the performances.
Angela Gheorghiu is undoubtedly the principal reason that this production is being mounted, and is also the biggest problem with it. She currently only sings four roles it seems (Magda, Tosca, Mimi, Adriana Lecouvreur) of which I have seen two live at the ROH, and she simply does not have a large enough voice for them. Whether this is by choice, or the manifestation of some vocal problem is debatable (I lean towards the former explanation), but for the first two acts she was rarely sufficiently audible (even on high notes) always delivering the wispiest little line of sweet sound. Intonation is OK, but not as good as it used to be. The vocal cover makes it very controlled but also very unexciting, and the chest voice is nonexistent and even middle voice quite weak - the impression in the theatre is of the lightest of lyric soprano timbres. In the last part of the last act she was finally singing out more, and at least was consistently audible, which suggests that she can in fact do it, but by that stage I just didn't care any more as she had totally failed to deliver a character in sound, and the self regarding acting, apt for this character perhaps, is not engaging enough to compensate. Up close in live and studio recordings the sound can still be marvellously full and beautiful, but it's an illusion in the sense that it doesn't project in the theatre. Is it vocal preservation? A lack of generosity? Simply because she can get away with it and still be hired? I don't know how much longer it can realistically go on - since the repertoire is so small, and she's been doing this for a number of years, it surely can't be too much longer that people will tolerate it...
The rest of the cast seemed purposely chosen not to show up Gheorghiu volume wise, though at least one could usually hear them throughout. Sabina Puértolas is a weak Lisette, but Charles Castronovo as the love interest Ruggero has a very attractive and remarkably dark lyric tenor voice, and he seemed in much more comfortable territory here than in Die Zauberflote earlier this season. It's not a big voice, and I'm not sure how many of the other major Italian roles would suit, despite the heroic colouring: I wonder if he's artificially darkening the voice (though if he is, he's doing it well!). The rest of the cast are all adequate, and Marco Armiliato delivers a respectful, beautiful, but perhaps slightly restrained traversal of the score.
I left the theatre quite disappointed - that Gheorghiu was so inadequate for a title role at the ROH and that the staging failed to make something viable of this likeable but flawed piece.