Everybody knows his “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Tosca,” but why is Giacomo Puccini’s “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”), which opens Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, so rarely seen or even heard of?
“[“Rondine” allows] “no easy outs,” says starring tenor Zach Borichevsky. “No one dies or threatens to kill anyone, no deus ex machinas save the day at the end. There is no such intervention of fate: The climax rests on the decisions and conscious actions of the lovers.”
“La Rondine” also defies easy categorization, doubling as opera and operetta, light and dark, comedy and tragedy. Puccini-lovers call it a “lost valentine” to yearning, passion and the puzzle of love where pieces don’t quite fit. Smitten sailors, a snotty Parisian poet, kissy kisses, and lonely café women turn up, but the opera – which Puccini changed several times, even inserting a suicide at the end of one of the revisions – refuses to wallow in sentimentality or succumb to one of those typical over-the-top opera plots.
But “Rondine” does offer other Puccini pleasures. Gloriously melodic music (listen for polka and waltz motifs), somewhat silly drama and libretto, and themes of ill-fated love suit the cast of energetic undergraduates, graduate voice students and its two stars, lyric tenor Borichevsky and soprano Anna Viemeister. Their voices combine in sublime duets – not to mention smooches. One kiss lasts at least a minute, giving the chorus plenty of time to comment on the love fest during its duration.
Borichevsky, 29. has a golden-toned romantic lyric tenor with an effortless top well suited to Ruggero, the country-bumpkin boy who comes to the city and pursues love. A singer on the rise and in demand, Borichevsky is lanky, good-looking and a natural actor. It’s a half-hour into the opera before he’s on stage, but once he’s there, we want him to stay.
He’s at PSU this spring as the Jeannine Cowles Distinguished Professor in Residence, and though a little older than most of the cast, he fits right in. Borichevsky graduated from the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and Yale School of Music and made a big impression last summer as Matteo in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” in Santa Fe. Just this year, he appears in Amsterdam in John Adams’ “Gospel According to the Other Mary” and in Santiago, Chile, as Romeo in Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” followed by stateside gigs of “The Magic Flute” in Boston, “La Traviata“ in Detroit, and “La Bohème” in Arizona and Finland. Whew.
Soprano Viemeister is on the brink of the big time, too. She sings the role of Magda with warmth and requisite Puccini lightness, yet her voice has significantly more heft than her onstage colleagues (though keep your eye on 19-year-old sophomore Hanna Consenz as the saucy maid, Lisette). Viemeister graduated from PSU and studied further at Manhattan School of Music and has sung for several years in New York. PSU senior May Picard will sing Magda April 28 and May 4.
Stage director Jon Kretzu, a veteran of Artists Repertory Theater, sets the “belle époque” PSU Opera production in post-World War II Paris. Kretzu, a Puccini fan, finds the city of light and creativity an ideal setting for young passionate love – several love stories are in progress in “La Rondine” – and big mistakes of the heart. He calls his setting reminiscent of the dazzling “world of Douglas Sirk overwrought melodramas and Vincente Minnelli musicals” that allow us to escape everything but love and loss.
In three acts, with one intermission, the opera works well in the 475-seat Lincoln Performance Hall. And what a sweet thing that is: The vast Keller Auditorium, where many of Portland’s operas are performed, overwhelms some productions. Expect some good work from the supporting cast and from Ken Selden’s PSU orchestra. He has won some awards for adventurous programming.
This is not a small production. Portland is lucky to have PSU’s opera program. You’ll get your money’s worth; just don’t expect the Met. Or opera’s usual easy outs.