One swallow might not make a summer, but it certainly helps rounds the season off. ‘Perhaps, like the swallow, you will migrate towards a bright land, towards love,’ sings the poet Prunier to Magda, the heroine of La Rondine, but love itself is the real bird of passage in Puccini’s gorgeous Viennese operetta-manqué. Magda trades in her old lover for a younger, cuter model and after a summer of happiness leaves him too, without undue regret. That’s basically it. No death leaps from battlements, no ritual disembowelling; none of that stuff that we’re meant to find so regressive and problematic in an opera house, and so visceral and cool in an HBO drama. Just a simple, plausible romance, played out to glowing waltz melodies. It’s probably Puccini’s least popular mature opera.
But on a West Country evening in the last days of summer, as prosecco corks pop gently in the sunset and shadows lengthen across soft green lawns? Come on: it’s perfect, and nothing will convince me that Michael Volpe, the new executive director of If Opera (the outfit formerly known as Opera at Iford), didn’t choose it for precisely that reason. The venue for If Opera’s inaugural season was Belcombe Court, an impossibly pretty manor house just outside the really, utterly, unfeasibly pretty town of Bradford-upon-Avon and, well, you’re not going to do Wozzeck in a Conservation Area, now are you? Not that I’d put anything past Volpe, mind, and apparently the plan is for If Opera to be peripatetic – adapting its projects to different venues around the English mid-west.
On opening night, though, we had La Rondine in a big tent in the tussocky, lantern-lit gardens of Belcombe Court, with only the half-hourly hooting of the train to Westbury (or possibly Portsmouth Harbour) to puncture the idyll.