Puccini’s Dance Opera Finds Ideal Venue In a Ballroom

By Elsa Tranter

Island City Opera in Alameda CA has done it again—put together a simple but effective production of a crowd-pleasing opera.  This time it was Puccini’s late opera La Rondine.  As the announcer said at the beginning, it was an Italian opera, set in France, in the style of a Viennese operetta, with English super-titles.  In other words, a whirlwind European tour without the $500 cost of a plane ticket (and the hassle of all those airports).  Maybe he should have added then that a contribution to the company of that amount would be most appropriate!!  (but he didn’t do that until the end).

Puccini was commissioned to write a comic opera in 1914 by Vienna’s Carltheater, but with the outbreak of World War I it was not completed until 1916 and had its premiere in Monte Carlo instead in 1917.  It has not been one of his more popular operas but has some lovely melodies and its own measure of poignancy and philosophical thoughts on which to dwell.

The opera tells the familiar story of a courtesan (the swallow of the title)  who longs for and finds true love with a higher-status (and younger) man and flies toward him and away with him, only to realize that his family will not accept her so she flies back to her former life, leaving him despondent.  Soprano Eileen Meredith was graceful and elegant in the title role as Magda (later called Paulette).  She has a soaring and sweet soprano and wore her stunning costumes with grace and élan.  Opposite her was the robust and powerful Alex Boyer.  His voice is magnificent, and at times it threatened to overpower hers, but they seemed to adjust as they went along and it mostly worked out quite well.  He didn’t have quite the same level of acting skill but he made up for it with his beautiful sound.

The secondary couple were another ‘opposites attract’ pair:  the poet Prunier sung with great charm and excellent vocal ability by tenor Sergio Gonzalez; and soprano Elisabeth Russ as the maid Lisette.  Their bickering and billing and cooing were delightful to watch and listen to and they were well matched physically.  His aria in the first act, the “Song of Doretta”, expounding on his theories of love, is on par with Puccini’s best; it was beautifully sung and then finished in equally poignant fashion by Magda.

Others in the cast included bass Jason Sarten as Magda’s patron, and smaller roles by Wayne Wong, Khris Sanchez, Bob Boyd, Ellen St. Thomas, Christabel Nunoo, Liesl McPherrin, and Katja Heuzeroth.  They all did well individually and also as part of the chorus.  The stage direction and sets by Jane Erwin Hammett were effective and attractive despite the very limited space.  The costumes were very elegant (as befits the turn of the century setting), and the lighting and choreography were both very good.  The largish orchestra, conducted with verve by music director Jonathan Khuner, sounded very robust (and in fact was a little overpowering if you were sitting on its side of the theater as I was).

This little company, which performs in the local Elks Lodge Ballroom in downtown Alameda (an island next to Oakland, reachable by tunnel, bridge or ferry) does consistently good work with limited resources. 

Three performances remain—Sundays March 10 and March 17 at 2:00pm and Friday March 15 at 7:30pm.

Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.