United States Puccini, La fanciulla del West: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, New York / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera to Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 20.10.2018. (JPr)
Production – Giancarlo del Monaco
Revival director – Gregory Keller
Set and Costume designer – Michael Scott
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
Minnie – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Dick Johnson – Jonas Kaufmann
Nick – Carlo Bosi
Jack Rance – Željko Lučić
Sonora – Michael Todd Simpson
Ashby – Matthew Rose
Jake Wallace – Oren Gradus
Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Susanna Phillips
Every time I come back to La fanciulla del West – which frankly given how little it is performed is not that often – it is worth retelling how 1907 was significant for fans of Westerns both in the cinema and in the opera house. It was the year that Marion Morrison was born – we know him better as John Wayne! – and also when Puccini found the American subject for his next opera when he saw David Belasco’s play (The Girl of the Golden West) on Broadway and this gave him the ideal scenario: ‘an open space in the great California forest, with colossal trees’.
La fanciulla was a success with the public on its première at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1910 but critics were generally unenthusiastic (as was most of Europe when they heard the opera). The music was considered rather modern and neither American enough for American critics or sufficiently Italian for those in Puccini’s home country. Yet Anton Webern said in 1919, how it was ‘A score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise, with not a trace of kitsch’.
Taking inspiration from Wagner’s music dramas Puccini strove to fuse tightly constructed uninterrupted drama with continuously expressive music with hints of the Debussy’s impressionism. I recall the words of George Hall when he reflected (in some Covent Garden programme notes) on how much Puccini ‘revered’ Wagner. Since then I have always seen the leading characters in Minnie’s Act II cabin as Siegmund (Dick Johnson), Sieglinde (Minnie) and Hunding (Jack Rance). Writing about Minnie and Johnson’s kiss, Hall said that ‘The idea of eruptive nature bursting through the door and initiating a love scene inescapably recalls a similar moment in Act I of Die Walküre’. For me Minnie’s exultation over the wounded Johnson sounds very much like Sieglinde’s Act II delirium. It happens too that the story is also built on a familiar Wagnerian theme: the ‘redemption’ of the sinner (Johnson) by Minnie as ‘das Ewig-Weibliche’ (the eternal feminine).
Many critics of La fanciulla del West feel it lacks the pure lyricism of La bohème or Madama Butterfly and is too melodramatic to be fully credible; and so it has never ranked as high with Puccini lovers as Bohème, Tosca or Turandot. Much of it does seem unlikely – a bunch of weeping, childlike gold miners singing in Italian or Minnie’s Act I bible class – or (now) somewhat offensive, like the Native Americans love of whisky. Thankfully other stereotyping such as their original caricatured appearance and the libretto’s pidgin vocabulary was toned down in this revival of Giancarlo del Monaco 1991 production.
One reason why La fanciulla del West is worth an occasional revival is because of that rich, dense score where chromaticism and dissonance are wedded to music from La bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, the yet to be composed Turandot, as well as a homage to Verdi’s Aida (in Minnie and Johnson farewell in Act III). Another reason for its relative unpopularity is that – compared to all those operas – there is a lack of show-stopping moments in La fanciulla which often just involves a great outpouring of music with its recurring fragments of motifs related to characters and events. Nevertheless, the work turned out to have a lasting effect on popular musicals of the twentieth century. As Matthew Rose reminded us in his backstage interview, without La fanciulla there would be little Andrew Lloyd Webber and Johnson’s Act I ‘Quello che tacete’ is central to the Phantom’s ‘The Music of the Night’ and whenever you hear that music you expect to see Michael Crawford appear on stage at any moment.
La fanciulla contains some of Puccini’s most strikingly human characters. The romance it depicts is very real and its flawed characters all too familiar to us. Minnies still exist today in modern-day America I suspect. Tough with a heart-of-gold, Bible-toting (and quoting), she is however insecure, naïve and painfully aware of her lack of education. Puccini’s Minnie falls for the bad boy Johnson who is really Ramirez the leader of a gang of bandits. Their exchanges, far from being wholly romantic as in La bohème are recognisably natural, awkward, even embarrassing, and their burgeoning romance does not go smoothly. Minnie’s idea of a ‘first date’ involves a single kiss before chastely bedding down Johnson/Ramirez in her bunk while she rests by the fire. There is also Sheriff Jack Rance’s lust and jealousy to contend with.
Michael Scott’s monumental three-dimensional sets and Spaghetti Western-inspired costumes wonderfully recreate memories of horse operas whether as movies or TV shows. The Act I Polka saloon, Minnie’s mammoth cabin and the Act III one-horse town prove cinematic wonders in Gary Halvorson’s direction for the screen. However, even with all the modern stage machinery that should be available in 2018 and the Met’s massive backstage crew there were intervals of 40 minutes or more between the acts.
The miners were suitably boisterous and rowdy at the start of Act I and coordination between pit and stage seemed hard-won, but it got there in the end. The Met chorus and those with small individual roles remained a potent part of the performance’s overall success. Carlo Bosi as Nick the conniving barman, Michael Todd Simpson’s stalwart Sonora and Matthew Rose’s brutish Wells Fargo agent Ashby, were acutely characterised and firmly sung. Though Oren Gradus, as the minstrel Jack Wallace, was not as secure as some around him his nostalgic song was plaintive enough.
Željko Lučić was singing Jack Rance for the first time and appeared to revel in this new role singing with potent lascivious menace and oozing Scarpia-like evil. As good as his singing was a highlight of his Rance was the high stakes Act II poker game with Minnie as the ‘pot’. There was a much-heralded return of Jonas Kaufmann to the Met after recent pull-outs and he was in fine vocal health. There was an ease and command to his performance throughout the whole evening. His ringing high notes took a little effort and his sound has darkened significantly so he does not now sound very Italianate, even for a German. His was an understated, subtly emotional performance throughout Act I in the playful delicate blossoming of love between him and Minnie which continued through their duet (of sorts) in Act II. After that he doesn’t get much chance for further passion because he is soon shot and seemingly fatally wounded. This being opera Johnson/Ramirez makes a miraculous recovery and Kaufmann got to sing the much-anticipated ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ in Act III which although burnished was not sufficiently impassioned nor did it have the visceral effect I was hoping for.
In a role I have seen her in before, Eva-Maria Westbroek repeated her wonderfully gauche Minnie, whose love for Johnson, religious zeal, and all she has done for the miners, makes them release him to start a new life with her. If her steely voice is not what it once was – and her top notes can now be a little hit or miss – to her great credit Westbroek never once stepped out of character from the moment of her dramatic gun totting entrance right through to her emotional farewell with Johnson (‘Addio mia bella California’ – think Aida!): still a too rare achievement on the operatic stage these days.
The longueurs of the intervals notwithstanding – which passed by happily thanks to a combination of the usual backstage interviews, as well as, the food you can get at the Everyman Cinema and have served to your seat – this was as satisfying a Met broadcast as any recently. This music was so much in Marco Armiliato’s blood that remarkably he was able to conduct the whole opera from memory! In his interview with the personable Susanna Phillips he said this allowed him to be able to watch the singers rather than having to look at the score and that the music carries him along like a river. As heard through the cinema speakers Armiliato and the reliable Met orchestra created an almost symphonic miasma of swelling sound with his emotionally nuanced and compelling account of Puccini’s score. There were some refulgent climaxes that – it much be admitted – occasionally sounded as if they drowned out the singers on stage but it was all terrific stuff for fans of verismo opera – which La fanciulla undoubtedly is – and Westerns alike!
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