Review: Cape Town Opera’s La rondine- mirthful poignancy of navigating transactional relationships- November 2021 season at Artscape, Cape Town- lockdown level 1, Covid, South Africa

Cape Town Opera’s staging of Puccini’s La rondine [The swallow], is a triumph – rousing the audience- in their masks- to their feet – screaming ‘bravo’- at the opening performance at Artscape, November 16, 2021. Opera veteran Christine Crouse in the director’s seat- has conjured up a magical piece of opera theatre – glowing with urban and opulent glamour in scenes set in Paris and a palette of stylish whites and icy blues at the ocean on the French Riviera. On the opening night, we saw Brittany Smith as Magda; Jodie Khan as Lisette and Lukhanyo Moyake as Ruggero. To see the cast list, Click here . The principals are riveting – not only in terms of voice – but also in the drama and fractured tenderness that they bring to La rondine- and their interactions with the ensemble. The costumes (Rabia Davids and Maritha Visagie) and sets (Michael Mitchell) are spectacular – from sumptuous layering in the Paris salon (modelled after Gertrude Steins’ famous World War I salon and its swinging soirees) and Paris restaurant scene to a palette of dapper whites and cream tones on the French Riviera, set against the ocean.

Christine Crouse has teased out the comedy of La rondine but the mirth balances on the edge of a tussle as the heroine, Magda tries to work out what she wants. She is a woman who must deal with relationship choices and essentially both are transactional. Her lot in life is that her existence is tied to men- and their money and position. She has to hitch herself to one of them as she clearly has no other options. Her reputation is what makes her expendable and she know it. It is very sad. She is an object for men – to be adored. She is the recipient of gifts and everyone around her is seduced by her luck and treasures. What about love and passion? The opera was first staged in 1917 at the Grand Théâtre de Monte Carlo Théâtre du Casino) in Monte Carlo. Its scheduled premiere in Vienna, was delayed because of the outbreak of the First World War. Puccini wrote three different versions of the work and suggested two different endings. In the one ending, Magda suicides. In the Cape Town Opera version, she walks away from her tryst with her lover, Ruggero and returns to Paris to be a “kept woman” with the urbane Prunier in Paris, as his “mistress”.

The concept of a “mistress” or “courtesan” sounds arcane in 2021 but sadly there are many women who find themselves shackled to men, dependent on them. Magda doesn’t consider herself good enough for Ruggero. Because of her past – not specified- she does not consider herself respectable enough for his esteemed family who have land and wealth. Or is that the story? In these days, who cares about conventions?  However, the reality is that ‘reputation’ is still a commodity in certain circles. In Christine Crouse’s hand as director, for me what comes across profoundly is a woman who wrestles with not been locked down. She is like a swallow (La rondine) who wants her freedom. When her lover sings of having bambinos (babies), I watched Brittany Smith tear up. She looked like she was freaking out; quivering in horror. This man has mapped out a life of domesticity, in the ambit of his upper-class family on their country estate. Oh no, this is not what she has signed for. She relinquishes that future and flies back, like a swallow, to Paris, to Prunier.

This is my first attendance of watching La rondine, on stage. I have seen filmed versions and am familiar with its famous arias, such as Chi, il bel sogno di Doretta and Ore dolci e divine, from recitals and riffs which have popped up in films. Reading up about the opera, it is was interesting to see how many people have dismissed the plot as frivolous, improbable and outdated. Watching in 2021, in this staging, it does not come across as frivolous or outdated at all. Sadly, many women are constrained by their positions in society- because they are women. They are locked into to their communities, without a choice to fly away. If they do flee, they often return, and fall back into place. This production is sung in Italian, with surtitles in isiXhosa and English beamed on a screen. The English surtitles are excellent –great translation- easy to read and listen and watch at the same time. There are lots of laughs. It is a comedy and it is very funny and heart breaking.

With Cape Town Opera’s La rondine, staged in lockdown Cape Town, with 170 seats in the auditorium and a masked audience, we are treated to powerful opera theatre. The production veers between opulent Paris city scenes and stylised ocean scenes on The French Riviera. At the core, is the poignant story of a woman trying to find happiness.  We also see the aspirations of the maid, Lizette, who tries and fails to be a singer. She goes back to her life of ‘service’ to Magda. What do women want? Well, what we want and what we can get are different stories. This staging is magnificent- voice, design (stunning costumes and set), orchestra and orchestrations. La rondine, by Cape Town Opera, lockdown 2021, gels profoundly as a piece of opera theatre which will resonate for many people, who grapple with relationships, which are grounded in alliances and tacit agreements rather than in love and passion. This La rondine reverberates with a mirthful poignancy of navigating transactional relationships.

Poignant and laden with mirth: La rondine- staged by Cape Town Opera, November 16m 2021- Brittany Smith as Magda and Lukhanyo Moyake as Ruggero. They alternate roles with other artists. Supplied.

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