Opera: PSU springs a Puccini surprise

Lightness, froth, and a touch of tragedy in the melodic and little-known 'La Rondine'

Tonight and tomorrow night (Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4) are your final chances to see “La Rondine,” this year’s production of the Portland State University opera program, and if you get the chance it’s worth the trip. Getting student opera right isn’t easy (getting ANY opera right isn’t easy) but PSU’s bright production of this bittersweet froth of a romantic comedy on the skids provides plenty of theatrical eye candy, and if the musical performances don’t always match the staging, they prove once again that the school’s program provides a consistently good launching pad for young singers. The blend of professional and student talent in the annual productions is usually an eye-opener.

La Rondine“La Rondine” is one of Puccini’s lesser-known operas despite its waterfall of lush melody – he himself was dissatisfied with the story, and kept tinkering with it after its premiere in 1917, altering the ending more than once and at one point even killing off his fallen heroine, though that’s not the ending used here, and thank goodness. The play’s an odd blend of light and dark, wanting to be almost an operetta but succumbing to a streak of odd moralizing and sadly separating two lovers who obviously are meant to be together: she has a soiled past, and cannot stain her young lover’s reputation. That decision comes a little late, considering that they’ve already run off together to a life of blissful sin in the countryside. Never mind. The music overcomes the moralizing, and if the “fallen woman” motif seems more like unintended self-parody than near-tragedy, well, times have changed.

“La Rondine” continues the student company’s adventurous programming, which in recent years has also included the likes of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” and Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” I imagine those choices have something to do with what roles are appropriate for developing voices. They might also reflect the tastes of program director Christine Meadows, who was a regular for several seasons during the heyday of New York City Opera, a company that revels in theatricality and accessibility to broader audiences. Having people like Meadows, Metropolitan Opera (and Portland Opera) regular Richard Zeller, Angela Niederloh and Pamela South available as vocal teachers testifies to the program’s high standards.

This production’s standout is unquestionably rising-star tenor Zach Borichevsky, a visiting teacher and guest artist this year, as Ruggero, the young man from the country who comes to Paris and falls under the spell of the enchanting sparrow, Magda de Civry. She holds court in the home of her jaded lover, Rambaldo, who on Tuesday night got a deft and dryly funny performance from master’s student Max Moreno. Once Magda and Ruggero eye each other … well, you can guess. Borichevsky, who’s improbably tall, has an engaging command of the stage and sings with warmth, power, and admirable precision. As Magda, recent PSU alum Anna Viemeister has a strong and warm voice but hasn’t yet developed the precise control that the role calls for. The makings are there, though, and that’s the point of the program. Among the supporting cast, Hannah Consenz is a bright-voiced comic knockout as Magda’s feisty maid Lisette.

Stage director Jon Kretzu, for many years a mainstay at Artists Repertory Theatre until leaving recently to jump full-time into the freelance pool, brings a bright comic edge to the acting, resetting the action smoothly into the 1950s with a lush Douglas Sirk approach. And the designs, which fill the cozy Lincoln Performance Hall stage without overstuffing it, are first-rate: lighting by veteran Peter West, chic costumes by Jessica Bobillot, and a set by Carey Wong that cleverly adapts a large spiraling staircase to a different location for each of the three acts. I’ve always liked the way Wong, a resident designer for Portland Opera many years ago before setting out on an international career, approaches his projects: his sets invariably have a vivid, almost hyperrealistic clarity that revels in the artificiality of the theater and is also stage-smart, providing clear playing areas.

Not just the singers but also the orchestra members are students, and while you can tell it’s a student orchestra, it’s a good student orchestra, responding well under Ken Selden’s direction.

I was puzzled by one thing, particularly since the back section of the hall on Tuesday night was mostly empty: while reduced-price tickets were available for PSU students and faculty, there was no student rate for high school kids, who ended up paying full adult fare. The policy seems short-sighted. Younger students (I had a particularly discerning one in tow) are the future audiences and performers of the opera world, and a welcoming gesture might even be a good recruiting tool for the university. Besides, empty seats don’t help anyone. Better all of fifteen dollars than none of twenty-six.

NOTES:

  • Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 3-4, at Lincoln Performance Hall on the PSU campus. Ticket information is here.
  •  Angela Allen wrote a good behind-the-scenes preview for ArtsWatch. Read it here.
  • James McQuillen wrote an insightful review for The Oregonian. Read it here.

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