Young conductor who subbed at the last minute for Yannick now aces an opera

Kensho Watanabe, assistant conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, who conducted Curtis Opera Theatre in La Rondine.

Failed operas don’t die: There’s always somebody out there with a savior complex. But while Curtis Opera Theatre might’ve thrown Puccini’s La Rondine a life preserver, beach balls and surfboards were more the order of the day in a production that could’ve made the opera seem even worse -- were it not for some fine singing and an even more convincing orchestral presence.

The two-night run beginning Thursday at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater had a well-meaning update from stage director Stephanie Havey, taking the piece from the mid-19th century to post-World War II Paris, a period of relative sexual freedom and personal discovery that suited the story of a seasoned woman-about-town passing herself off as something more innocent in a hot new romance.

“Puccini was extremely capable of humor … but frivolity was not in his nature,” Peter Burwasser writes in the program notes. Indeed. And because frivolity is what the production was after -- partly by turning the Act II cafe scene into a silly 1960s beach party -- the opera became less functional than usual. The ending (in the original 1917 version of the opera used here) hinges on the love affair being destroyed by 19th-century morals, and that makes even less sense in an updated setting.

So often, Puccini forgot much of what he knew. Though he had Viennese operetta in the back of his mind for La Rondine, why would this master of concise theatricality even think about writing a meandering first act with so little dramatic tension? Why did he subject the heroine Magda to such tough-to-nail high notes right at the beginning? Then in Act II, Puccini delivered perhaps the most beautiful ensemble passage he ever wrote -- one reason that opera producers wonder whether the right kind of key might unlock the rest.

That key was found, but not on stage. Though some listeners complained of excessively loud orchestral playing, I heard (from my seat) layers of detail that even the most articulate recordings don't capture. Conductor Kensho Watanabe, a Curtis graduate who is now assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was consistently engaged, no matter how confounding the piece can be, drawing first-class playing from the Curtis musicians and maintaining a surprising degree of narrative.

Read about Watanabe's triumphant last-minute call-up to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra this month.

The cast was consistently appealing and vocally capable, some missed high notes aside, with Elena Perroni making sense of the central role of Magda, both vocally and theatrically. Emily Pogorelc and Aaron Crouch were less challenged in their stock characterization of the secondary romantic couple. But the singer I most want to hear again is Jamez McCorkle, here as Ruggero, whose voice encompassed the grander Puccini moments but also delivered a level of intimacy that one doesn't often hear in this repertoire.

La Rondine is repeated at 7:30 p.m.  Saturday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. Tickets: $10-$35. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.curtis.edu