Puccini: La fanciulla del West

Live Telecast from the Metropolitan Opera

18 January 2011 2.5 stars

Fanciulla Puccini's La Fanciulla del West was the first of his operas to be premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (eight years prior to Il Trittico), and created an immediate sensation, eliciting nineteen curtain calls, making headlines in the press, and drawing international attention.  It helped that no expense was spared in a deluxe production conducted by Arturo Toscanini and starring eminent dramatic soprano Emmy Destinn, baritone Pasquale Amato, and perhaps the most famous tenor ever – Enrico Caruso.  Despite the initial success, however, Fanciulla has remained one of Puccini's most elusive operas, with productions relatively few and far between.  The Met's current production (directed by Giancarlo del Monaco with sets and costumes by Michael Scott and lighting by Gil Wechsler) was revived to celebrate the one hundred-year anniversary of the premiere performance on December 10, 2010.

To an extent, this revival was also meant to showcase American soprano Deborah Voigt's Minnie – a role she seems to be concentrating on, with a recent run of performances in San Francisco, and more still to come in Chicago.  Sadly, Voigt's performance was disappointing: while her acting was occasionally touching, her singing fell well short of the ideal.  Having heard her once gleaming, spinto soprano on several occasions since her much discussed gastric bypass surgery (and subsequent weight loss), it is clear that her former vocal opulence has faded into a thin, fluttery sound barely able to scale the heights of the soprano range and shrill in tone, with particular erosion in her middle voice.  The vocal changes may or may not originate with the weight loss: Voigt's middle voice always had a pallid, 'speech-like' quality that was more appropriate for a music theater stage than the opera house.  Her role in Fanciulla is famously difficult and requires a full, dramatic soprano – especially for the highly emotional second act, when Minnie must express every emotion from tender love to forceful rage.  I'm uncertain who hears Voigt as a dramatic soprano, but aside from some steely, strenuous high notes, what I heard was an unsteady, glued-together voice of lyric amplitude and little body or thrust.  It seems impossible that Voigt is seriously considering fulfilling her obligation to sing Brunnhilde in the up-coming new production of Wagner's epic Die Walküre.  Throwing Voigt's deficiencies into high relief, her cover – the exciting Spanish soprano Elisabete Matos – sang two earlier performances in the run, thoroughly outshining her American counterpart.  Hopefully the Met will be bringing Matos back for additional contracts in the future.

FanciullaMarcello Giordani's turn as Dick Johnson was generally successful.  Aside from a few slightly constricted high notes and an oddly emotionless 'Ch'ella mi creda', he offered handsome, poised singing throughout, only tiring a bit toward the end.  Over the years, his voice has grown into a full lyric tenor with the ability sound like a spinto when required.  While the basic amplitude remains slender, he offers generous Italianate coloring that nicely suits Puccini's soaring melodic fragments.  Visually, Giordani convinced with the sincerity of his acting; tall and husky, his burly bandit was well matched with Voigt's rather zaftig heroine.  While his visual appeal remains mostly unimpaired, the astute observer will no doubt hope that the tenor's steadily expanding waistline will perhaps retreat several notches before amorous credibility is scuttled entirely.

Baritone Lucio Gallo provided a snarling, over-the-top, stereotype as Jack Rance, the spurned and vindictive sheriff.  He, too, seems to be specializing in appearances in Fanciulla: there are two DVD issues already extant that feature his Rance in productions from Torre del Lago and the Netherlands.  Like Voigt, Gallo apparently views himself as possessing a dramatic voice, and yet his singing tells a much different story.  Except for a few bellowed climaxes, he didn't make much of an impression at all, in fact.  His constant mugging and indicating seemed more of a smokescreen for limited vocal resources than a truly thoughtful presentation of his character.  Ironically, during the intermission interviews, Gallo discussed his opinion that Rance isn't a totally bad guy, but rather he's jealous and looking for love just like the tenor.  I fully agree with his assessment, but his vocal impersonation never betrayed this level of understanding.

The most impressive star of this production was the Met Orchestra, who played with fanfare and robust virtuosity under conductor Nicola Luisotti's sensitive, intelligent baton.  Luisotti succeeded thrillingly in highlighting the Italianate origins of the score, while giving full due to Puccini's unabashed attempts to invoke the sounds of the American 'Wild West'.  He was equally brilliant in keeping the vast on-stage and pit orchestra forces coordinated and smoothly flowing forward, even when some of his principal singers required the occasional indulgence.  In smaller roles, Dwayne Croft sang strongly (but acted archly) as Sonora, and Tony Stevenson succeeded winningly in portraying big-hearted saloonkeeper Nick.  Richard Bernstein and Keith Miller also made strong individual contributions as Bello and Ashby, respectively.  While I found lots of distractions in the busy, cluttered production, it does tell the story effectively and certainly gives the many 'miner' characters plenty to do.  Perhaps the next time this production rides into town, there will be three soaring voices to match Puccini's big-boned orchestrations.  Until then, give one of the recent DVD issues a try or wander down memory lane with Tebaldi, Del Monaco, MacNeil, and Capuana on Decca.


By David Laviska

Photo Credits: Ken Howard/ The Metropolitan Opera; Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

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La fanciulla del West at the San Francisco Opera featuring Deborah Voigt
Boris Godunov at the Met
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at the San Francisco Opera
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