Australia Puccini: La Fanciulla del West, Orchestra and Chorus Wiener Staatsoper, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Staatsoper Vienna, 14.10.2013 (JMI)
Direction, sets and lighting: Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes: Dagmar Niefind
Minnie: Nina Stemme
Dick Johnson/Ramerrez: Jonas Kaufmann
Sheriff Jack Rance: Tomasz Konieczny
Sonora: Boaz Daniel
Ashby: Paolo Rumetz
Nick: Norbert Ernst
It is interesting that this opera ̶ musically one of Puccini’s best with its rich orchestral colors ̶ has never been a very popular work. However, in recent years it has been performed more frequently due to the interest in it shown by certain sopranos and conductors.
In this case, the interest of the Vienna State Opera’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst, seems to have been the impetus for the decision to mount a new production. The opera had been absent from this stage for 25 years; the leads at that time were Mara Zampieri and Placido Domingo. Welser-Möst also achieved a near-miracle by convincing two top stars to make their debuts in this production. The result was good although not everything was outstanding, at least considering the high expectations beforehand.
The production bears the signature of Marco Arturo Marelli, who has attempted to escape the atmosphere of the Wild West that is so present in the original play by David Belasco and in the opera’s libretto. But as much as one may want to leave that somewhat kitsch Wild West, attempts rarely work out because the libretto is full of references to it.
The action has been moved to a mining camp in modern times, around the middle of the 20th century. In the first act when the workers come to the bar, it is not exactly La Polka of the libretto but rather a trailer park cafe, and Minnie’s cabin is now a mobile home. The last act takes place in the railroad station of the mining town, on a stage surrounded by large metal containers. All in all the sets work reasonably well, and the costumes are well suited. There is a sort of childish final twist when Minnie and Dick Johnson leave town in the basket of a rainbow-colored hot air balloon, a ploy better suited to an opera buffa, as Emilio Sagi did in The Barber of Seville at Teatro Real.
The stage direction was good, with excellent crowd movements on stage ̶ so important in the first act of the opera. In short, it’s an attractive production, but it doesn’t leave a lasting memory .
Welser-Möst’s interest in La Fanciulla del West led to one of the major problems with the performance. When a conductor champions an opera, there is always the risk that his vision can overpower the ensemble, and this is what happened here to a certain extent. Welser-Möst offered an almost symphonic reading, one to be truly enjoyed, especially with the presence of this magnificent orchestra in the pit. The problem with his conducting was that he seemed to forget that there were singers outside the pit. These were not exactly small voices, but Minnie was the only one able to pass the sound barrier that existed between the stage and the audience. There was also a good performance from the choir, but they too had difficulty making themselves heard. In short, it was a spectacular musical version, but we were in an opera house and not in a concert hall.
The great Nina Stemme was Minnie, the heroine of the opera, and she gave the best performance of the evening. She won the poker game and, with the assistance of the balloon, she flew very high indeed. The Swedish soprano is in splendid shape both as singer and as interpreter, and there was no sound barrier she could not surpass with her powerful, appealing voice. After the final sentence of the second act’s Tre assi e un paio, Sheriff Jack Rance had no alternative but to leave the stage, even if the libretto had not said to do so.
Jonas Kaufmann was a somewhat disappointing Dick Johnson. He suffered the consequences of the Welser-Möst gale from the pit, and I have rarely been so aware that his middle range tends to lag behind while he has no problem with the top notes. It will be good to see him in different roles, but I feel that his middle voice lacks the weight and projection needed for this one. He was outstanding in the always much anticipated aria Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano.
Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny was a convincing and truly evil Jack Rance on stage, but vocally he fell below par. His middle range lacks weight, and his voice had some difficulty reaching the audicence. In my opinion Jack Rance requires a darker voice than his.
The numerous secondary characters were well covered. Boaz Daniel as Sonora was the best. Norbert Ernst offered a small-size voice as Nick, and Paolo Rumetz was of slight interest as Ashby, the Wells-Fargo agent. Juliette Mars as Wowkle, together with Jongmin Park (Billy Jackrabbit) and Alessio Arduini (José Castro), left good impressions.
The Staatsoper was again fully sold out. Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann were triumphantly received at their final bows, and Tomasz Konieczny was greeted with cheers (and some sonorous booing).
José Mª. Irurzun