When Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West premiered in New York in 1910, it shook the audience. In the 25 years since he staged his first opera, Le Villi, in Milan, the composer had firmly established himself with the success of Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and eventually Madama Butterfly, which, surprising to think now, had been a bit of a flop when it first performed.
American audiences loved his work and his latest effort was eagerly awaited. La Fanciulla was based, after all, on a Broadway play that set the action at the heart of the California Gold Rush.
Puccini took his time with a follow-up, instead focusing on building this resounding success, personally attending premieres all over Europe to promote the work. His tour took him to Vienna where he met Franz Lehár (12 years younger than Puccini, born on this date in 1870), a composer who had established a reputation at the lighter end of the lyrical spectrum.
It turned out that they were mutual admirers. At home, Lehár introduced Puccini to the local establishment, among them the management of the Carltheater, which was one of the main venues in the city where light opera was king.
Having something from the great Puccini on their program would be quite a feather in their cap, so they made him an offer. Now operetta would not have been on his agenda, but he was intrigued, his interest no doubt even more piqued by the substantial fee on offer.
His only stipulation was that it would be a comic opera, that is, without spoken dialogue. He got to work, creating music with a lightness he had never harnessed before. The result was The Rondine — The swallow – a story of doomed love. Magda, the mistress of a wealthy Parisian, falls in love with the young Ruggero. Her palm is read and it is predicted that she will go south, in search of happiness.
The action switches to Nice where Magda and Ruggero have settled on the Côte d’Azur, but their money is running out. Ruggero’s mother is happy to bail them out now that he has found himself a worthy wife, but Magda, feeling her past catching up with her, declares that she will ruin his life if she marries him.
The opera’s most famous aria, and indeed one of the most popular of all by Puccini, appears in the first act, when Magda improvises the conclusion of a song about a young woman’s search for happiness. .
Che il bel sogno di Doretta — Doretta’s Dream – makes her find love in the arms of a student. What does wealth matter, she sings, in the face of this “folle amore” – mad love?
By the time the work was completed, the world was at war, with Italy and Austria-Hungary on opposite sides. Puccini’s contract with the Carltheater stipulated that The Rondine was to be premiered at the theater in Vienna, which was obviously behind enemy lines.
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It took time to reach a compromise. The Rondine was finally staged for the first time in Monte Carlo, in March 1917.
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