In spite of my last post, and perhaps against my better judgment, I really want to like La Rondine. It's a hodgepodge of romantic cliches, but I see why the characters and setting would have been appealing to Puccini. Well, except for the fact that he didn't seem to write any other operas that even approach being similar. Maybe a little Manon Lescaut. And on the face of it, La Rondine seems like, if not phenomenal, it should at least be a good respectable opera like Francesca Da Rimini. Zandonai's Francesca opera, by the way, is one I readily cite as an example of a terrific score making up for perhaps a less-than-satisfactory libretto. But to me, La Rondine falls flat. But I want to like it. So I'm going to dissect it, focusing on the character of Prunier, the poet. Because when all else fails, making things meta automatically makes them better.
Prunier is the first character to whom we're really introduced. He is a poet, and he has a half-finished song about a woman named Doretta. This early in the show, most of the audience should still be paying attention, and so it's pretty clear that this song is going to foreshadow the events of the opera. For the second half, Magda, our leading soprano, takes over. So what we get out of this is that Magda is going to reject a rich suitor for a poor suitor. She's a courtesan, so that should be an easy enough plot.
So that's started out well enough. A little cliche, but at this point I was still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, Magda relates some tales of her youth, and the comprimari suggest that Prunier write about her. Prunier declines on account of he prefers his heroines to have some sort of an edge. He cites Berenice, Salome, and Francesca. I can only assume that the Francesca here is Francesca Da Rimini, which I must take exception to. But then I guess Salome is edgy enough for two sopranos.
Now things get moving. Ruggero comes in. He's the tenor. I mean, Prunier's a tenor too, so you could have been forgiven for thinking he was the protagonist in the first twenty minutes, but now we've got Ruggero, and he's actually the tenor. The way it plays out, Ruggero starts to take the focus, but Prunier keeps trying to pull it back to himself. He is now reading Magda's palm. That's right. We've got a poet who writes prophetic songs and a fortune teller. Also, he calls her a swallow -- that is, a rondine. So now we've heard the title of the opera too. (And in a case where the title isn't the name of a character.) This is where I started to think the opera was getting a bit heavy-handed. But the scene sort of feels like a power struggle between Prunier and Ruggero. Ruggero doesn't really care about the plot of the opera, he just wants to have fun in Paris. But Prunier knows what's up. He's acting as though he's in an opera -- which he is -- and he thinks he's the hero -- which he isn't.
Ruggero asks what to do in Paris. Prunier, a Paris native, is unimpressed with the usual touristy stuff, but now we get a full introduction to Lisette. We'd heard her before. She's had some of the quickest music in the piece. The blabbermouth maid. Now it becomes apparent as she rattles off what one does their first night in Paris that she is the funloving maid as well. The Despina. The Adele. So now we've got two sopranos and two tenors. Prunier wants his soprano to have an edge, so he picks Lisette as the leading lady for his opera. She dresses up in Magda's wardrobe and goes out on the town. Magda dresses down and goes out on the town. Ruggero just goes out on the town.
So as far as Prunier is concerned, Magda is a romantic cliche. He would rather write something he finds interesting. But Prunier isn't the protagonist of La Rondine, Magda is. So this opera is going to be a romantic cliche. Prunier picked the wrong protagonist. He thinks he's in Pygmalion. That he's Henry Higgins and he's going to turn Lisette into a proper lady. But, of course, he's wrong. He's not the main character, and neither is Lisette. That honor goes to Magda. However much Prunier would like to be in another opera, the fact remains that he's in this one.
This could be the part where La Rondine becomes a treatise on opera itself. A sort of Capriccio on the shift from high romantic opera (La Traviata) to verismo (La Boheme). But there's no actual evidence to suggest that this was the intent, and in any case, it falls short, because Prunier's involvement in the opera rapidly decreases from there. After a little bit of stuff in Act II, he only shows up in Act III to tie up the loose ends so that the audience knows that everyone is basically back on square one. Apparently Lisette had a very short offstage singing career, and now she's back to being Magda's maid. Magda, arbitrarily deciding that she can't be with Ruggero -- even though he doesn't care about Magda's "dark secret" and there's no Germont to provide a legitimate motive -- presumably goes back to Rambaldo (who announces via letter that he's prepared to take her back). And nothing comes of Ruggero and Prunier. Not one bit of progress is made over the course of the opera. No one dies, no laughs were had, no lessons seem to have been learned, and Prunier apparently failed in writing an interesting story with an edgy soprano.
So if we take Prunier as the main character of La Rondine, and take his time offstage as important, La Rondine sort of becomes a failed romantic opera about a composer who tries and fails to write a romantic opera. It's the sort of meta-opera you'd find if you followed around the Count instead of the Countess during the events of Capriccio. It's the right opera from the wrong tenor and the wrong soprano.
Now didn't I say everything is better when made meta?
(Note: Basically everything I just said is complete nonsense. It's not Capriccio. It's just a story about a soprano who falls in love with a tenor and drama ensues. I'm reading far too much into it. But I like La Rondine a lot better now!)