La Rondine (The Swallow) was one of Puccini’s later works, premiering almost exactly 102 years ago, on March 27, 1917. It followed his major successes with Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Originally commissioned as a Viennese-style comic operetta, La Rondine ended up blending elements of comedy and pathos in a score containing some of the most beautiful melodies Puccini ever wrote.
The title of the opera is meaningful on two levels. The swallow migrates every summer to northern climates for breeding, but always returns in winter to its southern habitats for an enduring food supply. In some cultures, the swallow represents happiness, as one has only to watch it fly to feel its joy. It is said to embody the powerful healing medicine of happiness, and carries also a meaning of regeneration and new life.
The theme of the opera is romantic love and genuine connection versus a more immediately gratifying encounter. The spine of the story or central question with which the characters must grapple is “Are we entitled to our happiness?” In 1917, women are beginning to demand more say in their lives, evidenced most profoundly by the suffragette movement. This cage-rattling actually begins some decades earlier, and women’s desire for something beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother (at the mercy of a husband) is reflected in the novels of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. Women without the means to provide for themselves had few choices – wife, teacher (if educated), menial labor or the sex trade. Few if any of these left them with the capacity to choose their own destinies. Those unable or unwilling to embrace society’s domestic ideal sometimes paid the ultimate price.
At the opening of Act 1 of La Rondine, we meet Magda de Civry, the kept mistress of a wealthy Parisian banker, Rambaldo Fernandez. She entertains her friends and his associates in the apartment paid for by Rambaldo. Her women friends are envious of the lavish lifestyle that Rambaldo provides. In aspiring to an arrangement such as Magda’s they tell us much about what they must do to survive. Magda seems less enthusiastic about her arrangement, especially as the conversation has turned to a new wave of appreciation for romantic love sweeping through Paris. In response, Magda relates a story from her youth to her women friends. Orphaned, impoverished and taken in by an elderly and strict relative, the young Magda sneaks out at night to find some fun at a Parisian night spot called Bulliers. A chance encounter with a young man blossoms into true love on the spot, a feeling returned by the young man. Motivated perhaps by uncertainty, fear, or too much too soon, Magda returns to her aunt’s home, never to see the young man again. She still feels deeply the lost opportunity for true love.
Before the night is over, Magda is given another and unexpected chance at happiness, and this time she grabs at it. Ultimately, however, society casts the final vote, forcing her to relinquish once more what she most desires. The past she has lived since that first innocent encounter – “triumphantly passing amid shame and gold” – denies not only her own happiness, but her lover’s as well. While a 1917 audience could neither sanction nor forgive her past, it is my hope that they would have begun to consider the harm done to her and regret her fate. For us, 102 years later, amid further women’s movements for equality and agency, there is no question. At what price do we pursue our happiness? At what price do we not?
Jane Erwin Hammett
– Stage Director