Stratas, Shuttleworth; Vrenios, J. Walker; Priestman. Production: Campbell. VAI 4564, 85 mins., no subtitles
Like Maria Callas, Teresa Stratas occupies that rarefied position in the opera world where everything she sang (or spoke) is deemed worthy of preservation. And this 1971 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production of Puccini's Rondine is no exception. Sung by a largely Canadian cast in Robert Hess's acceptable English translation (with, unfortunately, no subtitles, and the usual above-the-staff textual vagaries abound), this performance of Puccini's Traviata-esque foray into operetta delivers the goods without ultimately producing a thrill.It was directed by Norman Campbell, who was well-known in Hollywood as a sitcom director/producer. This may account for the feel of the production, which is a bit like a taped Broadway show. It has a slickness to it; the Bullier's patrons would not look out of place at the Harmonia Gardens in Hello, Dolly! (What is it about '70s film and TV productions that immediately dates them? It must be the big hair. Particularly in this cast of petite players, the coiffures dominate, especially that of tenor Anastasios Vrenios, who seems to be wearing a large Blackglama hat.)
This is Stratas at her peak, before the Mother Teresa and cancellation years. Vrenios (Ruggero) had made his name as one of Joan Sutherland's favorite tenors (he sang Raoul on her 1969 studio recording of Les Huguenots), and the Lisette, Barbara Shuttleworth, was about to sing in the Callas Juilliard master classes. Shuttleworth and her Prunier, John Walker, cope well with Brian Priestman's bright tempos. Their bickering relationship enlivens every scene and seems grounded in real affection. Stratas is a bit "careful"; she may have been restrained by the presence of TV cameras. She is never less than good, and we certainly feel the deep interior sadness that is intrinsic, but the extremes of emotion that one expects from Puccini prove oddly elusive. Both Doretta's Dream and "Ore dolci e divine" are well sung, with plenty of requisite spin. Occasionally, the English text doesn't quite scan, or the accent falls on the wrong syllable ("if you BEElieve me, do not DEEceive me, you shall have richES"), but not jarringly so.
In Act II, Magda has come to the local students' hangout with her hair down, literally and figuratively, disguised as a simple girl named Paulette. There, she is seated with Ruggero, the young man who visited her home earlier that evening. This being opera, he doesn't recognize her as his hostess, and they immediately fall in love, cemented by the beautifully tuneful Act II finale ("Here's to your smile, warm and tender").
The four leads are not clearly distinguishable vocally: both tenors sound a bit like Joe Feeney from The Lawrence Welk Show (as opposed to Ruggero having more virility and heft), and Shuttleworth's Lisette sounds like a Magda-in-the-making, rather than a soubrette. (She actually performed the role a couple of years later.) Her dimwitted feistiness, however, is in excellent contrast to Stratas's emotionally and intellectually complex heroine. It's also hard to tell the haves from the have-nots, because the costumes are so uniformly attractive.
Ultimately, for whatever reason — the translation, the cameras, the era — this swallow doesn't really soar. I want to feel that Magda had it all for a moment, and because of her own nobility, she walked away from the love of her life. And perhaps because we know that Stratas is capable of delivering more, this perfectly satisfactory performance ends up a disappointment.
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