I’ve been to the opera a total of three times in my life. The first time as a boy with my mother, we saw Carman, the second time in highschool, I saw The Magic Flute, and the third time as a man, I saw La Rondine. In the first two occasions I was lucky enough to see an opera, but I was to young and foolish to appreciate the grandeur of it all. Now as an adult, I can adequately understand how and why La Rondine is a breathtaking experience.
From start to finish a night at the opera is an odd night. When you find a place to park in downtown Saint Paul you’ll join a beautifully dressed mob as you head to the Ordway. What’s stranger still is that you and the couture cavalcade will shamelessly jay walk as you head inside the theater. Past the lobby, you’ll find yourself in your seat, if you’re not already insecure from all the beautiful comings and goings you’ve seen then you’re insecure now. Even in the dark the stage is a splendour to behold. Then you find the lights begin to darken around you, the show is beginning, and with that any rumbling of feeling you might have disappears as the music suddenly grabs you.
La Rondine follows the story of a French courtesan named Magda. Throughout the opera we follow her and watch her and her interactions with Ruggero, a young man from the country. The duo falls in love very quickly and by the final act they find heartbreak. Between all of this is a comedic trist between Magda’s maid, Lisette, and a poet, Prunier. I can’t adequately critique the 102 year old story, but trust me when I tell you, you’ve seen it before. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, in fact it’s very helpful.
I’m fluent in Italian, two years in college and East African parents, but even I had a hard time following the elongated Italian from the tenors and sopranos. But thanks to the big acting and stupendous staging all of the plot points came through. Like most operas, the dialogue was projected above the stage, but besides the occasional joke it is not needed. Anyone accustomed to dramas can see where the opera is going, and because of that you are allowed to seperate yourself from the work of finding catharsis in the story and find it in everything else. I found the greatest joy from the work of Celine Byrne, Christian Sanders, and Sara Brown.
Celine Byrne as Magda creates a performance that dutifully demonstrates authority and longing. Following her love story is a treat especially because she shows such complete control in aristocracy and poverty. With a voice that reaches you at every level, Byrne expresses that the value of her sincere affection to Ruggero is far greater than any monetary figure. This especially hurts when she finally loses her love. Even though the heartbreak can be seen coming, you feel her loss.
In between her highs and lows is Christian Sanders’s Prunier. The man is a scamp, but he doesn’t rub it in your face like others might or perhaps he doesn’t get much of chance, who cares. He’s often scolded, he’s fond of women, and his retorts follow the rule of three so we the audience often know when he speaks laughter follows. Even without translations, the man’s fluid gesticulations and posturing tell you everything you need to know about the comedy relief.
Finally Sara Brown’s scenic design, while you won’t find her on stage her work will strike you. The stage is immaculate and somewhat versatile. The lush red and creamy white say so much about the lazy wealth found in Act 1. The same dedication is found in Act 2’s with it’s moving colors and lovely hues of playful debauchery. Act 3 was toned down, but not in a way that bored. The final act’s flowing drapes and glimpses of greenery said as much as one might say about a hotel but not much more.
All of this came together in a show that stopped me from taking any of it for granted. And not just the show, but my life. Seeing work like this, done at such a high level leaves you content with your place in the world. I’m serious, watching this opera leaves you confident that you’re doing things correctly because they led you to this stupendous piece of theater. I couldn’t have been more grateful for that feeling, as I wish I could feel it more often. For that reason alone, I suggest you take the night to see this opera.