Review: S.F. Opera's 'Swallow' makes it summery

It's somewhat of a mystery why Puccini's 1917 “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”) is such a neglected, rarely-performed opera. With simple, repetitious but ravishing melodies, this updated story of “La Traviata” (good-hearted courtesan finds and loses true — if impecunious — love) is almost as rare as hen's teeth.

In fact, the San Francisco Opera production is only the second time it's been seen in the War Memorial Opera House. There was a single performance in 1934 (and Spring Opera Theater productions elsewhere in The City).

David Gockley took a chance on this cotton-candy Italianate Viennese-Hungarian operetta (the best Franz Lehár piece he never wrote) about love in Paris, reviving it after a hiatus of seven decades. The risk of filling the house seven times is ameliorated by engaging Angela Gheorghiu to sing the title role in her San Francisco Opera debut — and, equally important, assembling a very good cast.

Gheorghiu — a soprano of beautiful, soaring voice — sang the heck out of the role, but the diva also fit into an excellent ensemble. In the role of Ruggero, the man who takes the “fallen woman” away from her comfortable den of cheerful depravity, Misha Didyk had by far his best outing in the War Memorial. He has it all: a lyrical lilt, a strongly projected voice, a seemingly effortless performance.

Anna Christy is the lively Lisette, the maid; Gerald Powers makes his local debut as the world-weary, happily exploitative poet, Prunier.

Adler Fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Melody Moore, Katherine Tier and Ji Young Yang make fine contributions in this large production. So strong is the cast that the minor role of sugar daddy Rambaldo is assigned to Philip Skinner, the mighty bass-baritone.

The Nicolas Joel production, coming from London and Toulouse, is quite beautiful, with Ezio Frigerio's sets and Franca Squarciapino's costumes.

Stephen Barlow's direction is misguided, however, forcing artificial, exaggerated movements on the principals, taking away whatever realism there is in the work. Gheorghiu and Christy especially overdid the frisky acting at the beginning, Gheorghiu settling down in the second act, and creating a dramatically more valid portrayal in the long duet that makes up most of the final act.

Overdoing is also the hallmark of Ion Marin's conducting, those already large, sweeping melodies made to thunder as if Walhalla went up in smoke in a misplaced Twilight of the Cafe Society. Even in the passages not written fortissimo, Marin's hard-working orchestra stepped all over the vocal lines.

And yet, the pleasantness of the score, the excellence of the principals' performance, and the likelihood that “La Rondine” may not come around again in this century add up to an easy recommendation to attend the tale of the Swallow.

IF YOU GO

La Rondine

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 10, Nov. 13, Nov. 16; 7:30 p.m. Nov.21, Nov. 29; 2 p.m. Nov. 25

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com  

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