Romance flares in more intimate setting in Fresno Grand Opera’s ‘La Rondine’
You know it has to happen. It’s a Puccini opera, after all.
The leading man and lady, who in the first act meet and fall hard in one of those glorious love-at-first-sight moments that seems somehow plausible in a world in which gorgeous melodies rain down from the sky, face romantic trauma in the third.
Will the former courtesan, Magda, break off the relationship with her beloved, the higher-born (and very handsome) Ruggero, sacrificing her own happiness so her man can make a more appropriate match? Or will the couple risk social ostracism and strike out on their own?
For Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson, who play Magda and Ruggero in the Fresno Grand Opera production of “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”) opening Friday, the storyline was no surprise, of course. They’ve both sung these roles before. But at the first Fresno rehearsal in which their characters confront the opera’s possibility of tragic romance, the effect of the material was palpable.
“Rebecca really got choked up,” Johnson says. “When we went to dinner afterward, she was still crying in the car.”
And they weren’t even singing yet — just reading through their roles.
Davis confirms with a smile that she got a little emotional at the rehearsal, which had to shut down early. She continued to sniffle in the car ride following from the Fresno fairgrounds building, where the opera rehearses, to the Whole Foods salad bar, a favorite of hers. The production’s Italian conductor, Valerio Galli, a specialist in Puccini, was in the car, too, and asked whether she was OK.
Why the tears?
Because Puccini does that to you. The combination of the glorious music and vivid emotional themes can trigger waterworks. His operas might be set in an earlier time — director Joseph Bascetta has moved up the traditional setting of “Rondine” a few decades to the Edwardian age of 1910 — but the basics of love haven’t changed.
Fresno Grand Opera is hoping that a smaller venue for “La Rondine” than for previous offerings from the company will accentuate the opera’s intimate impact. The company for the first time is staging a production at the acoustically acclaimed Shaghoian Hall at the Clovis North Educational Center.
That’s a major shift from Fresno Grand Opera’s more than decade-long tenure at the Saroyan Theatre. With 750 seats, the smaller Shaghoian has about a third of the seats at the cavernous Saroyan.
Ronald D. Eichman, the opera’s general director, says the move was primarily motivated by artistic and programming factors.
“We’ve been trying to get into the Shaghoian for three years,” he says. “We’ve wanted to do ‘Rondine’ for quite some time, and it fits more appropriately in a smaller space.”
The move this season will also be an economic advantage, even though that’s not one of the company’s stated reasons. The smaller Shaghoian is cheaper than the Saroyan, and the company won’t have to worry about filling as many seats over a two-performance run.
“Candide,” the opera’s second staged offering of the season, which will be staged May 3-5, is also slated for the Shaghoian. Both titles were picked to take advantage of the venue, Eichman says.
The shift comes with its own challenges. The Shaghoian is a concert hall, and there’s no wing space, orchestra pit or ability to fly in scenery. With “La Rondine,” the 28-piece orchestra, conducted by Galli, will share the stage with the cast. But the production is considered fully staged with scenery, costumes and lighting, Bascetta says.
“I think people will love the intimacy,” he says. “The audience will be so much closer to the action. It’s almost as if you’ll be looking at a giant movie screen. You can become lost in the piece and lost in the emotion.”
Eichman says no decision has been made on whether the move to the Shaghoian is permanent, but Bascetta says he’s already been pondering exciting new ways to use the space.
“I have all these ideas of how to do all sorts of new things in the space,” he says. “To me, it’s exciting.”
Meanwhile, for singers such as Davis and Johnson, the chance to connect on an intimate level with an audience is exciting.
Davis, a Chicago resident who in 2010 sang the role of Magda for Opera San Jose, first played it as a college student at Northwestern. Since then, she’s traveled her own romantic journeys, as young people do, and she relates a lot more now to the emotional texture of the character — especially in that third act. (No worries about breaking down when singing during the performance, however, she says. That’s what professionals have to do.) We all know what it’s like to consider breaking up with someone, she says.
A little older and wiser can likewise be applied to Johnson, who sang the role six years ago for Lyric Opera San Diego.
“I was a bright shade of green when I first did it,” he says.
Now, with a few more trips around the block under his own belt, he can relate even better to Puccini’s dose of romantic angst.
“You see this poor kid grow up really fast in three acts,” he says.
“La Rondine,” 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Shaghoian Hall, 2770 E. International Ave. fresnograndopera.org (559) 442-5699. Tickets: $27.50-$72.50.