Sweden Puccini, La Fanciulla del West Royal Swedish Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, 17.12.2011 (Premiere) (GF)
Fanciulla may not be Puccini’s best opera, even though it was his personal favourite, but in a good production and with world class singers it rarely disappoints. Christof Loy’s new production in Stockholm – the first since 1934 when a young Jussi Björling was Dick Johnson – fulfils those criteria admirably. The opening is truly stunning: during the orchestral prelude – one of the best pieces of film music imaginable – a black and white Hollywood style movie introduction is shown on a screen, very 1930-ish with all the details about director, actors etc. Minnie is seen riding on horseback through a Wild West landscape. She dismounts and starts running towards the camera and – BANG! she jumps through the screen, revolvers in hands. Nina Stemme is with us. No wonder there was so much applause!
I have always found the opening of Fanciulla rather boring and it is, even in this production. It sets the atmosphere of course, but it takes too much time before something to happens. Once Dick Johnson enters, though, it starts to take fire and act II is a thriller. Set designer Herbert Murauer doesn’t try to transport the action to present times, which seems to be the norm nowadays in almost every opera production. We are firmly in gold rush California in the mid-19th century, and the sets are super realistic, quite in line with the intentions of David Belasco – the author of the play that the opera is based on. The only oddity – if that is what it is – is that the last act is not played in a forest but in the empty saloon of the first act and the snare, where Johnson is supposed to be hanged, is lowered through a hole in the ceiling. But this works, even though Rance’s words that Johnson will be highest in the forest seem a little off the mark.
What makes this production stand out as one of the most successful seen in Stockholm since the turn of the century is the singing of the three main characters. Overall, and this should be said at once, there is classy casting of the many minor roles, where Niklas Björling Rygert’s bartender and John Erik Eleby’s Jake Wallace, the minstrel, stand out, and the male chorus are excellent. Nina Stemme, for once in an Italian role, is a superb Minnie. She is a splendid actor and even though Puccini was mean enough not to give Minnie a real aria, she gets plenty of opportunities to expose her brilliant dramatic voice. Still, it is her sensitive handling of the more intimate scenes that impresses most of all.
Some years ago I wrote about Aleksandrs Antonenko, having heard him as Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut in Oslo, that he seemed predestined to be the natural heir to Placido Domingo. Today, with Otello among his roles, he is almost there. His voice has darkened slightly and he has achieved more authority, while the beauty and the easy delivery is the same as before. This was an impressive reading of the role and the only really well known number in this opera, Ch’ella mi creda in the last act, was marvellously sung with a myriad of nuances that you would have to travel many miles to hear executed as well as in Stockholm.
For me the real surprise of the evening was John Lundgren’s Jack Rance. Swedish born he has primarily had his career in Denmark and I have read many rave reviews of him but I wasn’t prepared for such power, such black venom. Having heard Juha Uusitalo as Rance a couple of years ago in Helsinki I thought that no one could challenge his reading of the role, but Lundgren is his equal.
Glorious singing, excellent production. The Stockholm Fanciulla is a roaring success and should be seen by every lover of opera at its best.