When Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West premiered in New York in 1910, the house collapsed. In the 25 years since his first opera, Le Villi, was staged in Milan, the composer had firmly established himself with the success of Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and – finally – Madama Butterfly, which today, surprisingly, had been a minor flop when it was first performed.
American audiences loved his work, and his latest work had been eagerly awaited. La Fanciulla was, after all, based on a Broadway play that set the story in the middle of the California Gold Rush.
Puccini took his time with a sequel and instead focused on building on this runaway success, personally attending premieres across Europe to promote the work. His tour took him to Vienna, where he met Franz Lehár (12 years Puccini’s junior, born that day in 1870), a composer who had made a name for himself on the brighter end of the operatic spectrum.
It turned out that they admired each other. Back home, Lehár introduced Puccini to local institutions, including the management of the Carltheater, which was one of the most important venues in the city where light opera was king.
Having some of the great Puccini on their schedule would be quite the stunner, so they made him an offer. Well, operetta would not have been on his agenda but he was intrigued, his interest no doubt further piqued by the sizeable fee on offer.
His only condition was that it be a comic opera, that is, one without spoken dialogue. He set to work, creating music with an ease he had never before tapped. The result was La Rondine — The swallow – a story about a lost love. Magda, the lover of a wealthy Parisian, falls in love with the younger Ruggero. Her palm is read and it is prophesied that she will go south in search of happiness.
The action switches to Nice, where Magda and Ruggero have settled on the Riviera but are running low on money. Ruggero’s mother is happy to save her after he finds a worthy wife, but Magda, sensing 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 Puccini’s works, comes in Act I, when Magda improvises the end of a song about a young woman’s search for happiness.
Che il bel sogno di Doretta — Doretta’s dream – finds her love in the arms of a student. What does wealth matter, she sings in the face of this “folle amore” – crazy love?
By the time the work was complete, the world was at war, with Italy and Austria-Hungary on opposing sides. That provided for Puccini’s contract with the Carltheater La Rondine had to be premiered in the theater in Vienna, which was now obviously behind enemy lines.
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It took some time to find a compromise. La Rondine was finally performed for the first time in Monte Carlo in March 1917.
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https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/how-puccinis-la-rondine-opera-was-caught-behind-enemy-lines-41597024.html How Puccini’s opera La Rondine was caught behind enemy lines