An Italian Rosenkavalier

An Italian Rosenkavalier

Riccardo Chailly’s exploration of the works of Giacomo Puccini continues with his most peculiar opera, La rondine, a most enjoyable comedy that blends many different styles


On the 100th anniversary of Puccini's death and 30 years since it was last staged at La Scala, with Gavazzeni conducting, Puccini's La rondine returns to the Piermarini stage, much desired by Riccardo Chailly, whose passion for Puccini is well known. The events surrounding La rondine perhaps contributed to its reception. It was commissioned by a Viennese operetta theatre, and its publisher lent it the misleading stigma of an operetta, in spite of Puccini, who assured from the outset that he would not be writing an operetta at all. What he had in mind was something based on the model of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, “only more entertaining and more organic”. He did not simply hide behind dance, which operettas tended to do, but sought to include "character study" and of course "originality [and] interest." The result, as Riccardo Chailly puts it, was "an Italian Rosenkavalier," entirely suffused – like Der Rosenkavalier – by the waltz, but with nods to other modern and American-influenced dances, and betting on a quartet of characters with diverse vocality and temperament, true singer-actors.



EF Puccini repeatedly returns to his scores: the extreme case is Edgar, but the other works were also tweaked in terms of instrumentation, additions, fine-tuning, and reconsiderations. This is of course due to the fact that musical theatre is always an open project with infinite variables, but it is also symptomatic of Puccini's modernity, which, like Mahler or Berg, never stops questioning the details.


RC The existence of different versions is a major challenge for whoever performs it, forcing them to reflect, to choose, but it also gifts them with a constant stream of discoveries. At La Scala we are fortunate to have the critical edition that came out in 1923 edited by Ditlev Rindom. When Ricordi obtained permission to consult the Torre del Lago archives, the existence of an original from before the first performance, that of 1917 in Monte Carlo, was discovered. This is a very valuable find because it had always been believed that the original, which was given to Sonzogno for publication and destroyed during World War II, was the only one in existence. Instead, we now have this version, which shows us La rondine as Puccini had conceived it. Not only are there 87 lines not present in any other printed edition, but we find important details in the instrumentation: for example, the presence of timpani and percussion is greatly thinned out and the trombones gain an autonomy only in the third act, the one in which the drama erupts. Puccini ties their tragic timbre to a specific dramaturgical strategy. All these elements, however, demonstrate the beauty of this third act, which is generally underestimated by critics and deemed less successful. But it is full of details that reach the level of the innovation of Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West.


EF In La rondine, can we say that Puccini reckons with his past and at the same time gives his best in terms of internal mobility, with that dynamism that he has taught us to recognize since the first act of Manon Lescaut?

RC Undoubtedly, the dynamism here is also embodied in the dances. The waltz triumphs, with twelve appearances throughout the opera, and when it reappears in Act II, accompanied by a cymbal crash that literally makes it explode, you can hear the homage to Rosenkavalier as much as to the Fledermaus: in other words, to the two Strausses.  More so than in the "pre-Montecarlo” version, at La Scala we use this flamboyant return of the waltz accompanied by the return of the chorus. But there are also four other dances: the quick step (on which the opera opens, pure adrenaline!), the tango (linked to Prunier), the polka and the slow fox. They are not there as closed inserts, but rather taken in the middle of the discourse, undeclared.


EF It can't be easy to oblige this constant internal elasticity...

RC The ability to bring together different rhythms and passages in a single uninterrupted flow is part of what makes Puccini great, one of his defining characteristics. Of course, the continuous transformation, one detail shifting into another, one rhythm into another, requires a very malleable, highly flexible tuning. That was what Gino Marinuzzi knew to do immediately in Monte Carlo. Puccini had always regretted the freshness and transparency with which he had been able to perform the premiere in Monaco. Marinuzzi also directed it at La Scala, but a full 23 years later, in 1940. Conductors immediately realized the extraordinary value of this score. It was De Sabata (in 1919 he, too, had conducted it in Monte Carlo) who said that "Puccini's most elegant and exquisite score is La rondine."


EF In La rondine, we catch hints of not only Rosenkavalier and Fledermaus, but also Traviata, Giordano, Massenet, writing on top of the writing...

RC This ability to allude to others is also a very modern trait. First, it reveals to us how current Puccini was, that he knew what was happening outside Italy. The playful and even obvious wink to Salome toward the end of Act I also reminds us that he had gone all the way to Graz to hear it, with Mahler and Zemlinski. These are isolated references that never verge into plagiarism, because Puccini was always uniquely himself. In fact, in La rondine, even the self-references are very tasteful. Apart from the dramatic force of some passages in Act III, where I distinctly hear La fanciulla del West and Madama Butterfly, Gianni Schicchi pops up in the close of Act II, the point where the tenor walks away accompanied by the piccolo, and below you can hear a sly bassoon mumbling, sounding like Buoso Donati! And then a separate point should be made about the originality of the harmonies: in the first act of La rondine, there is even a passage in which all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale overlap, which Puccini uses to project us into polytonality, into the world of Stravinsky. It was Enzo Siciliano who had noted how La rondine was tangible evidence of Puccini's knowledge of Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, which were from 1911. The finesse with which he orchestrates the waltzes in La rondine is a point of contact with Ravel's world.


EF The characters are part of the environment, but it seems to me that they also have very personal features.

RC Very personal! And not only Magda and Ruggero, also Lisette, who requires diction of exceptional clarity and a truly Stravinskian sense of rhythm. We are fortunate to have a performer (Rosalia Cid) who possesses these gifts. She enhances the 20th-century aspects of this character, who seems to have come straight from Mavra! And then there is the constant bickering with Prunier, also a tenor, but so different from Ruggero. The bickering involves surges of words, an incredible number of words that Lisette sings at an impressive speed. Puccini is attentive not only to how he treats texture, but how he characterizes the development of individual characters. Thus, Prunier is much more "agitated" than Ruggero, who is more lyrical. La rondine needs these four characters with different vocal identities, in terms of not only timbre but also character. Even Rambaldo, who, having less of a part, is a character with well-defined and personal traits.


EF The treatment of the voices, this "conversational style" that can adhere to the flow of speech without renouncing melodic curvature is also very modern. It carries forward a discourse from La fanciulla del West which then in essence remains without heirs that can carry it at this level of internal balance and versatility.

RC Of course, this is also seen in the third act of La rondine, in which there are two very important duets from Magda and Ruggero. Here there is a real dialogue that is open and unfolding, that never sacrifices the melodic characterization of the singing. And the harmonic undertone is also reflected in the voices without undermining their singability. In La rondine, there is a fine example in the scene with the partition, with those parallel fourths and fifths that already sound a lot like Turandot, and which flow parallel with the singing, without compromising it, without overshadowing it.


EF What part does the treatment of the orchestra play in assisting the fluidity of dialogues and ensembles?

RC It is without a doubt fundamental. It is not easy to give everything the right weight. When the singing is doubled in the orchestra, you must balance the symphonic dynamics in favour of the vocal weight. This was precisely the problem with the Bologna performance of La rondine, which dissatisfied Puccini. Flexibility is needed in this, too; it is a tricky aspect of Puccini's writing, but also a fascinating aspect that must always be recalibrated and weighed. Then there is also a component of timbral exploration that is always very prominent in Puccini. Puccini seeks out an unprecedented timbre. I always remember that in the first version of Madama Butterfly, which I performed at La Scala a few years ago as the opening, he inserted a cymbalom, an instrument of Hungarian folklore that he had discovered by chance in Budapest and later removed. In the closing of the second act of La rondine (in which he uses, among other things, the harp-celesta-Glockenspiel combination a lot) he wants a bass carillon that in fact does not exist, but with which he wanted to find a different timbral identity to double the celesta and Glockenspiel. I will work on this with the professors of the orchestra who will help me to identify, in the possible available timbral range, the nuance that can best respond to this suggestion. Another aspect of modernity in the first version is the presence of the piano. Puccini does not initially plan for it to accompany only Prunier's romance and Magda's encore, but has it continue afterwards, and the inclusion of the piano in the orchestra is a characteristic of the 20th century.


EF Puccini loves collective scenes, but in the second act of La rondine, I have the impression that he outdoes himself, going beyond a picture of the Latin Quarter in La bohème.

RC Here it seems to me that there are three overlapping elements of interest: on the one hand, the great Viennese waltz, let's call it that, with references in which I specifically see the Rosenkavalier, but at a certain point the wave of the waltz is overtaken by the slow fox (“Perché mai cercate?"), which transports us to the harmonic-melodic world of Richard Rodgers, to the Broadway musical, and here it is clear that Puccini in those years was also following these new currents, especially after his time in the U.S. for La fanciulla del West. And after this homage to the Broadway repertoire, then comes the final note of the bassoon, which has its origin in Gianni Schicchi! Puccini manages to pass through these three very different worlds in such a short space, and yet he ties them all together in a very natural way. We hear no pauses. He was a master at transforming ideas and sliding them into each other. We see this again at the beginning of Act III, which opens with that "filter" theme we have heard before, but which here is modified as if in a memory: its waltz rhythm is now superimposed on a baroque hemiolia, a rhythmic artifice that produces a variant laden with meaning.


EF Thus Puccini's refined writing and elegance do not disappoint in La rondine either?

RC Without a doubt! The structure is complex, thoughtful in every small detail, but in listening to it, it sounds extremely natural. Everything is overcome by the fluidity of singing, melody, and orchestration. But the strength of the identities, the fluidity of the dialogues, the modernity of the features impart their own charm on this singular comedy that plays with the past and the present and blends so many styles together without losing sight of its organic character.

Elisabetta Fava
Full professor of music history at the University of Turin,
she is a scholar of Lied and German music theatre.
She collaborates regularly with the Publishing Department of the Teatro alla Scala.

Translation by Alexa Ahern