IFORD Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine marked my first ever visit to Iford. I hope I can be forgiven for thinking I had arrived in paradise; a picnic, a perfect English summer’s evening and the exquisite gardens of Iford Manor. All this and Puccini too – absolute bliss!
La Rondine is one of Puccini’s later operas, written in 1917, some fifteen or twenty years after more familiar works such as La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Although it has enjoyed something of a revival of late, there is only one really well-known aria (Doretta’s Dream) and even this probably owes most of its popularity from its use in the film A Room with a View when it underscores that lovely scene with Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands in the Tuscan countryside. But Puccini’s score holds many more treasures than this, all of which were revealed on Tuesday evening.
La Rondine (the title translates as The Swallow) is the story of Magda, a Parisian courtesan and mistress of the wealthy Rambaldo, who defies convention in order to chase her dream – a dream of romantic love with Ruggero, an earnest if somewhat naïve young man. Their idyllic, if ill-fated, love is portrayed alongside the rather more tempestuous and often comical relationship enjoyed by Lisette, Magda’s maid, and the poet Prunier.
The opera itself was presented in the intimate Cloister at Iford Manor, a building created by Harold Peto, the architect and garden designer, exactly one hundred years ago. It was this unique, quirky, enchanting structure that defined the production. With an audience on all four sides, no-one was ever going to be far from the action – indeed at times, more than quietly eavesdropping on the goings-on in Magda’s salon or wherever, one actually felt part of them. The staging was simple but effective and greatly enhanced by some atmospheric lighting, the youthful company, under the inspired direction of Ben Occhipinti – and what an eye for detail he has – was full of high-spirits and sparkle, while the orchestra, members of the Chroma Ensemble, played superbly under the expert baton of Oliver Gooch. It is hard to believe that there were only about a dozen players, such was the richness of sound they produced. Together Occhipinti and Gooch created a production that was as coherent, lively and dynamic as I have seen anywhere.
Magda, played by the young Russian-born singer Ilona Domnich, was outstanding. There was an intelligence and depth to her performance which made her potentially creaky decision to leave Ruggero and return to her wealthy patron almost inevitable. Ruggero himself was played by James Edwards – another powerful singer with a gloriously rich voice. Both, I am sure, are destined for great things. Their final scene together at the end of Act III was a real emotional tour de force; there were, no doubt, more than a few of us wiping our eyes by the end of it.
The secondary plot revolves around the poet and the maid, played by Christopher Turner and Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson respectively. Both were fine singers and able to bring considerable humour to their roles. The delightful scene where Prunier is encouraging Lisette to change her outfit before going to Café Bullier was one of the highlights of the evening, as was the scene in the café when both couples sing of their feelings for each other. This was Puccini at his poignant best..
Leaving the Cloister and gently returning to the reality of Peto’s moonlit garden, I was left wondering whether there could be anywhere else quite like Iford. We are surely enjoying a golden age of opera in the UK at the moment, with festivals and opera seasons throughout the length and breadth of the country. But there was something particularly special about Tuesday night, when the production, the setting and, of course, the weather all came magically together.
La Rondine runs until 21st June.