NEW YORK — Kristine Opolais was such a hit at her Metropolitan Opera debut that she got bopped on the head.
The 33-year-old Latvian soprano had just completed her role debut as Magda in Puccini's "La Rondine" on Friday night when a fan threw a bouquet of white flowers that came apart and fluttered onto the stage and into the orchestra pit. As she reached down to pick up some of the petals, another bouquet hurtled toward the stage and thwacked her on the noggin.
The audience giggled and Opolais continued taking her bows. It was an unexpected end to an evening that saw Puccini's least popular mature work return to the Met for just its second run since 1936.
Taking over roles sung by Angela Gheorghiu and husband Roberto Alagna when the staging opened on New Year's Eve 2008 – Gheorghiu said this month they are divorcing – Opolais was paired with tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, singing Ruggero on his 39th birthday.
Her voice is filled with color and shadings, and she has a charming manner on stage, as does Filianoti. While Gheorghiu's Magda was a diva, Opalis was more of the girl next door – if the girl next door happens to be a courtesan.
Opolais' first-act aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta (Doretta's beautiful dream)" started a bit tentatively in perhaps a sign of nerves, but she won over the audience with her warmth and lyricism. At times, though, both Opalis and Filianoti had trouble being heard with authority over Puccini's thick orchestration.
Puccini originally intended the piece for Vienna's Carltheater, which wanted an operetta, but he composed it as a comic opera, and World War I caused the premiere to be shifted to Monte Carlo in 1917. While Giuseppe Adami's libretto lacks the drama of Puccini's better-known compositions, the opera has lush melodies that make it a winning if underrated work. The second-act quartet "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso (I drink to your fresh smile)," was the feel-good highlight of the night.
Magda, the mistress of the banker Rambaldo, falls in love with Ruggero, who has just arrived in Paris, and moves with him to the French Riviera. The title, which translates to "The Swallow," comes from the poet Prunier telling Madga she will head south like the bird.
But by the end, Magda says she cannot marry him, tells him she has a sordid past and leaves Ruggero.
Baritone Dwayne Croft, apparently over the cold that hampered him in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" last month, sang heartily as Rambaldo. Anna Christy was spunky as Madga's maid Lisette and tenor Marius Brenciu was sweet voiced as Prunier.
The Nicolas Joel staging is a co-production of The Royal Opera and Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, and it first appeared in London in 2002 as a vehicle for Gheorghiu, whose relationship with the Met broke down two years ago when she withdrew from a new staging of Gounod's "Faust."
Sets by Enzo Frigerio – the extensive use of columns is a giveaway – transport the action from the mid-19th century to the art deco age of the 1920s. For a couple running out of money, their glass-roofed hotel seemed palatial.
Rather than use the dress with shiny accents and jeweled-headband flapper look of Gheorghiu, Opalis was decked out in new attire created by Sylvia Nolan, the Met's resident costume designer. Gheorghiu, whose performance can be seen in an EMI DVD of the initial Met run, had short, dark hair, while Opolais' was a wavy dirty blonde.
Ion Marin, who led this production at the San Francisco Opera with Gheorghiu in 2007, conducted with great ebb and flow but allowed the volume to overwhelm the singers.
There are four more performances of the revival, with the finale on Jan. 26 broadcast live on radio around the world.