La Rondine: in conversation with If Opera’s Bruno Ravella

Emma Clegg talks to Bruno Ravella who is directing La Rondine at If Opera over four dates in August and September. With a new garden auditorium, video projections and a modern interpretation of Puccini’s opera, Bruno aspires to create a production that registers clearly with a contemporary audience.

Madame Butterfly, Rigoletto and La Boheme are all iconic operas in the creative repertoire of opera director Bruno Ravella. His Madame Butterfly was performed in 2018 with Iford Arts in the Cloister at Iford Manor, described by The Arbuturian as, “inspired direction, possessing a subtle beauty often missing in the more ostentatious opera house productions.”

Iford Arts has this year rebranded as If Opera and Bruno is back with designer Flavio Graff and conductor Oliver Gooch to direct their new production of La Rondine in the grounds of Belcombe Court in Bradford on Avon. In this atmospheric outdoor location will be a new auditorium – revised from the version used last year – offering a fully enclosed structure with excellent acoustics, full weather security and air quality flexibility. The structure has a large internal space with a raked auditorium of over 350 seats and internal walls allowing state of the art digital projections. “Now it’s a completely enclosed space, which means we can control the lighting as well as protect the audience from the elements,” says Bruno.

I start by asking what Bruno’s role as opera director entails. “I am ultimately in charge of everything you see. So I choose the set designer, the lighting designer, and the video design in this instance. So it’s my concept, my thoughts, and I work with the singers to express that and put it all together.

“The conductor (Oliver Gooch) is in charge of the musical side of things. We work on the casting together, we audition singers and he looks for certain things musically and I’ll look for certain things scenically. And then we agree on our cast.

“Every part has specific demands and you look for different things in different roles, as well as the right vocal quality. If Opera is an ensemble company, so they need to find singers that can have different roles within the ensemble and to sing in different operas. So with an ensemble everybody is involved in every show.”

La Rondine (the swallow) is a moving tale of young love and heartbreak. Parisian courtesan Magda is the ‘rondine’, the bird who flies towards the sun, and Ruggero is the shy country boy who becomes her lover. We witness their relationship unfold in the colourful locales of Paris and then in the balmier climes of southern France. The love ‘quadrangle’ is made complete by Prunier, a poet and Magda’s fiery maid, Lisette.

La Rondine is one of the least well known of Puccini’s operas, or at least the most underrated. People assume it’s a mock operetta, a Fledermaus-type production. But it’s not – it’s got some amazing music, and Puccini created it when he was well established and in full control of his creative powers,” says Bruno.

There is a famous aria in Act 1, the quartet, Bevo Al Tuo Fresco Sorriso (I drink to your beautiful smile), but Bruno is moved by the story that all the songs tell, and is determined to show how La Rondine has been mistakenly dismissed by critics as a lighter opera. “When you look at the libretto, people say it’s just like Traviata or Manon, but it’s not. It’s a realisation from the main character of what it is to be truly in love, as she moves away from the pressure of society that expects her to be a certain way, and learns how to just be herself and accept who she is.”

Bruno is a director who likes to see the world through the eyes of his characters. Puccini wrote three versions of La Rondine with two completely different endings, but died before clearly deciding on the final one. “I’m working with the original version, the one I prefer. With the other versions Puccini introduced a tragic ending and I suspect this may have been to help box office sales. I like the original and I think there is both truth in this one and an interesting emotional journey,” explains Bruno.

In the process of animating the story, Bruno is keen to make it relevant and convincing to a modern audience

In the process of animating the story, Bruno is keen to make it relevant and convincing to a modern audience. The tragic ending of the original sees Magda return to Paris as the mistress of a wealthy banker because she sees her background as inappropriate for her liaison with Ruggero. Bruno is adding extra layers to this. “La Rondine is tragic but I’m not treating it the way people expect. I don’t buy the ‘she has to leave him because she’s a soiled entity’ idea –I think that’s comes from a patriarchal view of women.

“She leaves her lover because she doesn’t think she will be accepted by his family because she has a past as a courtesan and I think that’s quite unacceptable today. Also it’s a bit of a cop out; I think she’s actually looking for an excuse. So I’m trying to find something that is much deeper and is more about her and her understanding of who she is and what’s she’s looking for in life.”

There is a scene in Act 3 where Ruggero returns with a letter from his mother, in which she says that if his fiancée has the virtues he has described, he will have a blissful marriage, and refers happily to the children they will have. This forces Magda to admit her past to Ruggero.

Bruno explains his interpretation: “Suddenly this woman is trapped in the social expectations of the day. It was so obvious to me when I read it, because I placed myself in Magda’s shoes. When the letter was read I suddenly felt crushed and trapped. There was an increasing consciousness of who she is and what she was looking for, a quite different perspective to the first aria in Act 1, which shows a Walt Disney view of Prince Charming and Happy Ever After. There is a truth and a modernity in her journey that I am keen to explore.”

Bruno is using projections within the auditorium during the performance. “The space is enclosed so we can use lighting and I can show a lot of the emotional thoughts and the journeys of the characters in this way.”

Despite this, there are restrictions. “We are limited a little in terms of location with costumes and scenery – there are no wings, there is no fly tower, and there is very little space back stage. Also the shape of the dome means that the further back you go, the lower the height of the roof. So you can’t stand at the very back. But every space is different and in this case we have more flexibility and more freedom. If Opera was very open to any ideas I had, and we have created quite an organic, dynamic space rather than just a flat fabric tableau in the middle.”

Bruno’s work on different productions develops at different paces.

“I work on projects where it will take me maybe a year or a year and a half to get my head round the piece. With La Rondine the idea came really quickly. As soon as I heard it I saw what I wanted to do.”

Put a date in the diary to enjoy Bruno’s new interpretation of Puccini’s opera.

La Rondine by Giacomo Puccini, sung in Italian with English surtitles, will be performed by If Opera at Belcombe Court, Bradford on Avon on 26 and 29 August and 1 and 3 September. Tickets £40–£90. Bath Box Office: 01225 463362;

Featured image: the gardens at Belcombe Court