Giacomo Puccini - La Fanciulla del West
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Nicola Luisotti, Giancarlo del Monaco, Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, Lucio Gallo
The Met: Live in HD - January 8, 2011
The staging of La Fanciulla del West in the current season of the Metropolitan Opera and its broadcast around the world as part of their The Met Live in HD programme, was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s American opera. Based on a play by famed American theatre impresario David Belasco, “The Golden Girl of the West”, the first ever performance of the opera at the Met was directed by Belasco himself, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Emmy Destinn as Minnie and the great Caruso as Dick Johnson, with Puccini himself in attendance. The elaborately period detailed Giancarlo del Monaco production from 1991 was revived for the occasion of the anniversary of one of Puccini more intriguing operas, if perhaps not one of his best.
Dating from 1910, it’s not inaccurate then to consider La Fanciulla de West as the first "Spaghetti Western" (although such racial stereotyping was played down here, as were some of the rather crude racial references to Native Americans and the Chinese in the actual opera, at least in the subtitled translation). The opera, based on Belasco’s play, certainly establishes a few of the traditional characters and set-pieces that would become familiar in Hollywood Westerns down through the ages, and these are certainly retained with the traditional, and perhaps even knowing, nature of the Met’s production. The saloon, complete with moose-head for target practice, is established as the perfect place to introduce the characters in Act 1. Set in a Californian mining camp around 1850, the men are prospectors, forty-niners, some of them gamblers playing poker, some of them cheating – leading to the inevitable bar-room brawls and shoot-outs – while others long for the folks back home and take comfort in bible lessons. All of them however are in love with the only woman in the place, Minnie, who works at the Polka bar.
Unfortunately, Puccini can’t bring anything deeper than this out of the elements and the storyline is consequently little more than a basic love story that plays out between two pretenders for the barmaid’s hand, the sheriff Jack Rance, and newcomer Dick Johnson, who is reality is an outlaw known as Ramerrez. Puccini is of course the master of the love story, particularly the tragic love story where life throws almost insurmountable difficulties at an unexpected love that has just freshly blossomed, but while there is some clever use of metaphor for those sentiments in the mining occupation of the prospectors – the only treasure all of them want above all the gold in the mountains is Minnie’s love – the storyline elsewhere is fairly run of the mill, the drama being around whether it will be an outlaw who steals that particular "treasure" from the virginal Minnie.
Puccini however attempts rather more sophistication in the music itself, modernising his writing, mindful of the impact of Wagner while at the same time keeping those familiar melodic traits and crescendos that hit the expected emotional high notes. If it’s not quite to the same depth or complexity in the characterisation of his romantic hero and heroine this time, and there are no memorable arias comparable with Tosca, La Bohème or Madama Butterfly, the singing does however manage to express a longing and an emotional life to the characters that would otherwise be invisible behind the tough, weathered exteriors of the hard-life and deprivations they have suffered being so far away from home, living in the hope of something better.
As Deborah Voigt acknowledged in the interview during the interval of The Met Live in HD broadcast, Minnie is consequently a rather more challenging singing and dramatic role, and not suited to the typical heroine of a Puccini opera. Voigt fits the bill well as Minnie, noted for her Strauss and Wagner roles, but having some of the gentler lyrical qualities of a Puccinian lyrical soprano. While the demands of the role and the performance took their toll on some of the high notes of the Act 1, Voigt hits the emotional force of all the key moments in Act 2 – where the opera really comes together – bringing out the full depth of Minnie’s personality while retaining the vulnerability of her position. Lucio Gallo reprises the role of sheriff Jack Vance that he performed for the rather camp Nikolaus Lehnhoff production at the Nederlandse Opera last year, giving it a little more spice as the baritone baddie, all but twirling his moustache. Marcello Giordani sang the role of Dick Johnson well enough, but never made much of an impression otherwise.
I’ve never been totally sold on La Fanciulla del West as an opera – mainly on account of the rather simple and crude storyline – but it does represent an interesting stage in Puccini’s career and it does indeed have many fascinating musical aspects and melody lines that draw much more out of the work than is evident from the surface impressions given by the characters. La Fanciulla del West is perhaps a Puccini for those who don’t normally like Puccini, but without the usual sureties of a typical Puccini opera, it’s also consequently more difficult to make it work effectively. I haven’t seen a production I’ve been entirely happy with – though I’m sure it can be done – but, particularly in its impressive second Act, the Met’s 100th anniversary staging was a fine effort nonetheless.