Opera - Diva in Disguise

Unconventional staging sets La Rondine apart

There's this woman who once dreamed of a house upon a hill with orchards all around it and a husband who loved her more than life, maybe a kid or two to romp among the apples and pears. Nice image.

Instead she ends up the mistress of a wealthy banker, throwing fancy parties for her sophisticated friends. Men want her. Women envy her. Fame, fortune and freedom from domestic drudgery: That's true happiness, they're sure of it. Another nice image.

The woman, of course, is terribly unhappy, and she knows — knows — she would be happy if she could only find that husband with the orchard in the hills.

But image, at least as a certain carbonated corn syrup brand would have it, is nothing. Giacomo Puccini knew this long before the advent of spin doctors and media consultants. The opera La Rondine, which Puccini and the librettist Giuseppe Adami wrote during the culture-crumbling years of World War I, scripted the lives of Marilyn Monroe, Marion Davies and, to some extent, Greta Garbo before they lived them.

Taking a cue from Puccini's deconstruction La Rondine of the images that guide and hide our lives, the Atlanta Opera has created a radically unconventional production of. In a framing story developed by artistic director William Fred Scott and stage director Dejan Miladinovic, a woman known only as "the Diva" is preparing for a production of La Rondine in which she will play the role of Magda (Paula Delligatti), the wealthy mistress of the banker Rambaldo (Matthew Lau). Paparazzi follow her. Rival artists envy and desire her.

The set design brilliantly reinforces the opera-within-an-opera concept. Created by set designer Peter Dean Beck in collaboration with Miladinovic, the first act finds a half-sized reproduction of the Fox Theater proscenium stage — complete with all its Moorish flourishes — placed upon the Fox's actual proscenium. Outside the stage-within-a-stage, crew and "offstage" artists go about their harried preparations. Painted flat and stylistically, the interior of the smaller stage appears less real than the exposed backstage walls outside it. The romance of the theater, the set reminds us, is only an image, with the chaos of frenzied motion and emotions stirring in the wings.

As the story progresses, the "stage" grows larger, covering about two-thirds of the proscenium in the second act, and conquering (by becoming) the entire stage in the third act. "Offstage" action diminishes, then disappears. "The story is taking over," says Miladinovic.

The same is true of "the Diva." She becomes thoroughly Magda, who pretends to be "Paulette," an illusion she creates of a virtuous working girl. She falls in love with Ruggero (Jorge Lopez-Yanez) who loves her with all his heart and wants her as his wife in his house upon a hill. He has the orchards. He wants the kids.

But Paulette is just an illusion created by a courtesan, portrayed by a diva, portrayed by a gifted soprano. It's just another image, another story told. And Magda knows it. "The Diva" knows it. We know it. And images, in the end, are too fragile a foundation for any life.

Despite the unorthodox staging, the concept remains thoroughly faithful to Puccini's creation. Aside from a handful of verbal outbursts at the very beginning, the score and libretto are untouched. (Some previous "concept" productions of La Rondine, impatient with the bloodless, bittersweet ending, have written suicides and the like into the score.) The Atlanta Opera's framing story and set simply add another level to La Rondine's regression of images, asking the audience to participate in, rather than merely observe, the collapse of crystal illusions.

The Atlanta Opera presents La Rondine May 2, 4-5 at The Fox Theater, 660 Peachtree St. Thurs. at 8 p.m. Sat. at 7:30 p.m. Sun. at 3 p.m. $19-$127. 404-817-8700. www.atlantaopera.org.??

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