The invitation from Vienna to create an opera based on a sketch by Alfred Maria Willner, Franz Lehar’s librettist, tested Puccini’s stated dislike of the operettas with spoken dialogue .

“It is the usual slipshod, banal operetta, the usual contrast between East and West, ballroom festivities and opportunities for dancing, with no study of character and in short no dramatic interest (most serious of all). And so? An operetta is something I shall never do; a comic opera, yes, see Rosenkavalier, only more entertaininbg and more organic.”[i]

Hearing of Puccini’s disinterest Willner contacted Heinz Reichert to collaborate on a plot for to the maestro’s taste. In April of 1914 Puccini received Die Schwabe (The Swallow in English, La rodine in Italian). It resembled Verdi’s La Traviata, but with “all the larger issues banished.”

The heroine, Magda , is merely a “kept woman” attempting to live out an impossible dream. Gone is the mortal illness that plunges Violetta into a hectic pursuit of pleasure; gone, too, the iron pressure of bourgeois morality in the person of Germont pere, which bars her from a lasting union with the man she loves. Here the “antagonist” is her protector, Rambaldo, who holds the purse strings. There is no death in a state of moral redemption, merely renunciation, operetta’s nearest approach to a tragic denouement. Ruggero, the naif young provincial for whom Magda falls, is an operatic  forerunner in the jeune premier of Massenet’s Sapho. The rest belongs to the lighter genre.”[ii]

By September Puccini was clear about what he was writing:

   “It’s a light sentimental opera with touches of comedy – but it’s agreeable, limpid, easy to sing with a little waltz music and lively and fetching tunes….It’s sort of a reaction against the repulsive music of today.”[iii]

When the opera premiered in the German language  in March of 1917 the critics were unanimous in praising the new genre, half opera, half musical comedy, and predicted great things for The Swallow. But after the Italian premiere the critics were “captious, complaining the opera fell between two stools”.[iv] Consequently Puccini began a series of rewrites, none of which ever appeared on a stage.

The Metropolitan Opera has rolled out its opulent production by Nicholas Joel, featuring gorgeous Art Deco settings by Ezio Frigerio, and luxurious costumes by Franca Squarciapino, highighted with picture-book  lighting by Duane Schuler. Add the famous Met orchestra, led with greart intelligence and sensitivity by Speranza Scapucci, and the always reliable Met chorus, and you are well on your way to a delightful evening of opera.

The principals are icing on this Great War era masterpiece. The beautiful Angel Blue, at her vocal and dramatic best, gives us a Magda to cherish.  She gets the lovely ball rolling in Act One with the heart-breaking aria Chi il bel sogno di Dorette pote indovinar? Folle amore! Folle ebbrezza! Chi la sottil carezza dun baccio cosi ardente maid ridir potra?”” (“Who could guess the beautiful dream of Doretta? Mad love! Mad intoxication! Who can ever describe the subtleness of such an impassioned kiss?”) Puccini has never written more lush music. Opposite her is the Ruggero of Jonathan Tetelman, making his Met debut. The lovers sing with great passion, showing off their stellar voices. The peak of their collaboration is their Act II duet “Nella dolce carezza della danza chiude gli occhi persognar.” (“I close my eyes to the dream in the sweet caress of the dance.”) On the acting front Ms. Blue seems to actually believe everything her character says and does, to great effect. On the other hand, Mr. Tetelman seems to employ an old-fashioned mannered style of presentation, more Delsarte than Stanislavski.

The supporting lovers, the poet Prunier (Bekhzod Davronov) and the maid Lisette (Emily Pogorelc) portend the end of the Magda -Ruggero relationship, as Lisette fails as a night club entertainer. Having to choose between having Ruggero but possibly ruining his family with the details of her sordid past, or leaving Ruggero and her love for the continued life of a sad courtesan, Magda makes the selfless choice. The conclusion Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken might summarize the heroine’s feelings, the universal situation of a past bad choice which continues unfortunate effects:

“I (Magda)shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads (one to bourgeois respectability, the other to the excitement of the free love of a kept woman) diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”


[i] Julian Budden, Puccini. His Life and Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 343-344.

[ii] Budden, p. 344.

[iii] Budden, p. 345.

[iv] Budden, p. 351.

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