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La rondine: Puccini's Delicious-to-"Swallow" Opera Dazzles at Arsht

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We've all seen her many times, her eyes sadly scanning the strip for her peers as she sips coffee or a martini at Segafredo on Lincoln Road. That young woman with the bangin' body and the face of an angel, hanging on the arm of some dude you're hoping isn't her grandfather, seeing as his crepe paper-skinned hand is perched possessively atop her thigh. 

She's a kept woman, a concubine, a sugar baby. She's found an old geezer who drapes her in jewels and always pays her way as long as she doesn't stray too far. As lame and as limiting as it might be, her dreams of meeting a guy she really loves, one who could keep up with her in Zumba class, are too risky to realize. She's become accustomed to the safety her sugar daddy's wealth provides. This is what Giacomo Puccini's La rondine, Italian for "the swallow," is all about. It debuted at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House last night.

La rondine, which was last staged by a major company when it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2008, was one of Puccini's least celebrated operas -- but we're not sure why. The score and the libretto (as translated by the English (and Spanish) captioning projected above the stage) are both beautiful and clever, and the story itself is at times humorous, at others wrenching. The setting of the work -- 1920s Paris -- makes it a particularly clever pick to present now, given the recent success of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Florida Grand Opera's production was mesmerizing to behold, thanks to a cast of fantastic performers, decadent, dazzling costuming, and impeccable set design.  

Elizabeth Caballero played Magda, the enchanting lead. She and a handful of female friends, dressed in a rainbow of sequined Flapper dresses and flamboyant hair jewelry, open the first act, set in the parlor of her rich protector, Rambaldo. They're joined by a number of dapper gentleman dressed in tuxedos, sipping whiskey, smoking, and emitting deep laughter from smug, self-satisfied smiles. We meet Rambaldo, the dry boyfriend/benefactor, who readily admits that the romantic devil inside him is asleep. Without art, he lobs a string of pearls at his lovely ward, and takes off up the stairs without offering her so much as an embrace.

The token poet, Prunier (Daniel Shirley), whose puffy black ascot and youthful cherry red cheeks set him apart from the more conservative businessmen, makes the gallery of girls swoon as he sings his latest song. Magda joins in, and the entire company, male and female alike, agree that the woman is a delicious specimen. Caballero's voice flies across the house like an other-worldly sonic beam. Her arias sound nothing short of impossible, even by opera standards. 

With the flawless instrument of her voice, Magda tells the tale of an aunt who found true love in a brief and fleeting encounter (no, nothing as sordid as a one-night-stand), and laments that she has never known such a feeling. Prunier sings a prophetic story about the swallow, who briefly spreads its wings to explore the world, but eventually returns to the life it knows. 

Soon, Magda meets Ruggero (Bruno Ribeiro), a man she truly loves. (How appropriate for a Miami audience -- she ends up finding love at the club.). But will her affection for this broke-ass man be enough to overcome her fears of financial insecurity and her guilt about her past?

Each of the opera's three acts opens on a different, and equally gorgeous stage. (The scenery was originally created for New York City Opera.) The second act, which takes place in Bullier's nightclub, is filled with a veritable flower garden of actors in eye-catching costumes, including one large woman in a purple dress whose forehead is adorned by an entire peacock's tail. Another actor sports an angular red fez with his three-piece suit. 

As the lovers coo at one another at a table at the front of the stage, an elegant waltz-ballet hybrid is danced by a striking woman, white as snow from skin to gossamer gown, and her graceful counterpart, his dark skin and tuxedo providing contrast to his partner's form. 

An all-around aesthetically awesome and temporally relevant show, FGO's production of La rondine is a gift to the South Florida stage. 

La rondine runs January 24, 27, and 29, and February 1 and 4. Tickets cost $11 to $175. Go to fgo.org or call 800-741-1010. 

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