A spectacular production of La Rondine (The Swallow) by Puccini opened Friday night at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts in downtown Winston-Salem. It is hard to determine what shone most brightly – the superb singing of the leads, the colorful sets (made possible by a generous gift of Patty and Malcolm Brown), the striking lighting, the variety of innovative costumes and hats or Puccini’s magnificent orchestration, beautifully rendered by the musicians in the pit, students of the UNCSA School of Music, decisively led by James Allbritten, director of the Fletcher Opera Institute.

There are several musical highlights in the opera; one which remains in the collective ear of the public at large is the first act aria, “Ore, dolci e divine…” (Hours, sweet and divine…) where our swallow, Magda, describes her first flight from her Aunt’s house to “Bullier,” a Parisian dive, where she meets, loves and loses her first lover in the space of a few hours. The Magda of this production, Kristin Schwecke, is blessed with a beautiful velvety voice and excellent intonation.

Her “protector,” Rambaldo Fernandez, a Parisian banker, was sung by the lofty David Weigel, to good effect. His devotion and willingness to maintain the nest despite her flight to the Riviera with the innocent Ruggero, the son of a friend, are essential to the entire plot. Ruggero, inexperienced, unsophisticated and gullible, was sung by tenor Jonathon Johnson who has a splendid voice and excellent Italian diction.

A humorous sub-plot involves Lisette, Magda’s nervous (and naughty) maid (sung by coloratura soprano Catherine Park) with Prunier, poet and man-about-town (sung by Jesse Darden). Miss Park is gifted with a nimble voice with an astonishing high register. Borrowing her mistress’ hats and wardrobe and changing clothes frequently, we were made aware of the talents of costume designer Kendra Peine Weeks.

The spectacular sets, especially the second act, set in the Café Bullier, a Parisian nightspot, which evoked the paintings and posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the backdrop of the third act, abstractly in the style of Paul Gauguin were designed by John Coyne and illuminated by lighting designer David Palmer, whose stroke of genius was the pyramid of light which ended the second act, when the new lovers find each other in the empty and abandoned café. With great attention to detail, even the screen over the stage on which the English translation is projected is shaped to fit the décor on stage.

The successful stage direction of Steven LaCosse was also most evident in the second act, replete with prostitutes, fun-seekers, tourists, drinkers, waiters and an acrobatic dance number (Gary Taylor and Emily Rhodes) that left the audience gasping. This act also brought in the chorus, which sounded glorious, and highlighted the orchestra in Puccini’s tribute to the Viennese waltz.

With a plot light on drama it is not surprising that this is one of Puccini’s least performed operas, notwithstanding the fact that it was broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera last week. There are no beheadings (Turandot), no suicide (Madame Butterfly), no execution or death-leap (Tosca), no death in the wilderness (Manon Lescaut), no lover dying from consumption(La Bohème) –  indeed, no death at all, just the excruciating pain of sacrificing the love of one’s life to return to the nest as a “kept woman.”

Even though there is only one aria which is familiar, there are many musical treats for the astute listener, starting with the genial orchestration and innovative harmonies of Puccini. All of Broadway musicales from the thirties on have adopted Puccini’s harmonies! Then there is his use of the repeated eight-bar chaconne as a dramatic musical device highlighting the drama of the imminent parting of the lovers in the last act. Earlier in that act, when Magda, whom her lover calls Paulette, decides she must confess her impure past, the orchestra plays a long melodic passage in parallel seconds and sevenths, an ominous dissonance.

The only thing missing from the evening was a more complete program – a synopsis of the plot, a few facts surrounding the commissioning and premiere and biographies of the singers would have helped make this a more complete experience. Surely there are students who might welcome extra credit for inspired program notes!

La Rondine will be repeated Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. and Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.