Considering his well-documented fascination with American cowboy folklore, Giacomo Puccini must have been familiar with the phrase, "Go West, young man!" In 1907 the composer took this advice, if only as far as New York, and while there attended a Broadway play by American playwright David Belasco titled The Girl of the Golden West. Thus began the genesis of the most celebrated "horse opera," La Fanciulla del West.
Whether Puccini struck gold with La Fanciulla del West is still open to debate. Beyond the magnificent reception at the opera's premiere in 1910 (dramaturg Cori Ellison writes that there were 55 curtain calls), and in spite of Puccini's proclamation that this was his finest opera, the musical tale of life in a small mining town during the California Gold Rush in 1849-1850 appears to have faded — much like the Wild West itself — into the proverbial sunset.
The Met's current production, which marks the centennial anniversary of the opera's premiere performance, reprises Giancarlo del Monaco's production dating from 1991 and repeated in 1993. It remains visually appealing throughout its three handsomely-staged acts — from the rough-and-tumble staging of the saloon brawl (ended by a blast from Minnie's rifle) to the menacing crowd scene of bloodthirsty, torch-carrying miners hungry for a good ol' fashioned lynching, late in the final act.
Beyond its gruff exterior, La Fanciulla del West is essentially a colorful cowboy tale woven around a simple love story, only the message of mercy and forgiveness sets the drama apart from your run-of-the-mill western. And unlike Puccini's other operas, no one gets killed.
The plot, like so many Westerns, is rather mundane. Minnie, the story's only female lead (Deborah Voigt), is the Bible-reading, gun-toting owner of the The Polka Saloon, the town's favorite watering hole and poker room. Although Minnie's tomboyish character maintains a gruff exterior (intended, no doubt, to keep the town's frisky miners at bay), she is by all accounts a virtuous lady who has never been in love. And, if you're willing to buy the premise, she's never been kissed, either. All this of course changes once the burly Dick Johnson (Marcello Giordani) rides into town, after which Dick and Minnie forge a sturdy bond that could rival that of The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
When Dick Johnson is finally unmasked as the bandit Ramerrez, Jack Rance (Lucio Gallo) — the town sheriff with romantic designs on Minnie — seizes the opportunity to rid the town of the bandit who captured Minnie's heart. On the eve of the fugitive's hanging, the hero is saved by Minnie's impassioned pleas, which are compelling enough to transform the lynch-mob's lust for blood into compassion and forgiveness.
Deborah Voigt may not be a name commonly associated with bel canto. Nevertheless, the dramatic soprano's prior successes in works of Strauss and Wagner (she'll be singing Brunnhilde at the Met's Walküre later this season) no doubt provided suitable preparation for the demanding role of Minnie, which requires great stamina and a secure upper register.
Voigt's staying power is put to the test principally in the second-act, where the range of emotions and vocal prowess must take the cowgirl from the joy of her first kiss to disillusionment in learning that Dick Johnson is actually Ramerrez, and finally to the role of card cheat, as she plays a game of poker with Rance that she simply cannot afford to lose.
Voigt was in strong voice and sang beautifully Saturday afternoon, especially in Oh, se sapeste, as she describes to Dick Johnson the joy and solitude of her modest cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Still, her sense of pitch occasionally succumbed to the sheer strength of her vocal delivery and vibrato, and her thick vocal timbre could not always keep pace with Puccini's light and quick tempos. As an actress, Voigt was the least convincing of the principal characters — with monodynamic facial expressions that did little to convey the many changes of moods and circumstances in the drama.
As Dick Johnson (a.k.a. Ramerrez), Marcello Giordani delivered the most convincing vocal effort of the performance with an exquisitely lyrical bel canto tenor that captured the moment throughout much of the performance — particularly during the lengthy duet scene with Voigt in Act 2 that leads to the much anticipated "first kiss." Although Giordani appeared slightly hoarse in his third-act signature aria, Ch'ella mi creda libero (the one number in this work you may rightly call a traditional aria), he nevertheless remained in complete control of the high register — which Puccini puts to the test having molded this aria for the original Ramerrez, Enrico Caruso.
Giordani's brawny high register does however have an annoying tendency to sail sharp, which was impossible to ignore in his first-act duet with Voigt, and during the high B-flats in the second-act Or son sei mesi, as he recounts his sad past to Minnie. Moreover, Giordani's acting skills continue to appear rather stiff, although it must be said that he suffers from chronic back pain that I suspect may limit the scope of his movements.
Lucio Gallo, as the egocentric sheriff, Jack Rance, looked and acted the part of Minnie's ultra-jealous suitor. Gallo, whose roles include the evil Scarpia from Puccini's Tosca, was asked at the intermission about the parallels of these antagonists. He opined that Rance is not an inherently evil character, just very jealous. If that's true, then Gallo's Rance is about as evil as a jealous cowboy can get.
Gallo was all but spitting bullets in the climactic poker game at the end of Act 2, where Minnie challenges him to a game of high-stakes poker. The "stake" here is Ramerrez: If Minnie loses, she will turn-in the fugitive and succumb to the sheriff's amorous advances; if she wins, Ramerrez goes free. And when Rance eyes the two lovers slowly walking off into the sunset (Addio, mia California!) at the conclusion of the opera, one has to wonder if the sore loser will hoist his rifle and take a shot at the pair.
Gallo's deep, masculine baritone injected his character with lots of testosterone, and his command of the town and its rough-and-ready miners was never in question. His voice did show obvious signs of strain in its upper register throughout the first-act, but his command of the high notes improved considerably midway through the second-act during his dramatic scene with Minnie and the wounded Ramerrez.
Among the minor roles, and there are many, Keith Miller was a standout as Ashby — the Wells Fargo stagecoach agent who along with Sheriff Rance doggedly pursues Ramerrez throughout much of the story.
Miller was well-placed in this role, with a disheveled look and rugged demeanor that evoked the spirit of Clint Eastwood in any number of spaghetti westerns. Miller's sturdy bass-baritone was especially effective in the third act, where Puccini forges a murky dialogue between Ashby the pedal-tones of the contra-bassoon. Immediately following Saturday's matinee performance of La Fanciulla del West, Miller traded his cowboy outfit for a captain's uniform to reprise his role as Zuniga, the unctuous captain of the Guardia Civil, in the Saturday evening performance of the Met's Carmen (the role he played so well in last season's stunning HD Simulcast).
Dwayne Croft's Sonora, whose courageous call for forgiveness at the end of the opera helps diffuse the lynch-mob intent upon hanging Ramerrez, delivered the story's ultimate message of compassion and forgiveness, buoyed by the baritone's tender and lyrical phrases.
As one of only two women in the cast, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson forged a memorable presence as the Indian mother, Wowkle, while her character's common-law husband — the stereotypical American Indian (played by veteran bass, Philip Cokorinos) — provided a measure of comic relief to the otherwise serious plot. As Nick, Tony Stevenson crafted an amiable bartender who drums up business by pouring whiskey and spreading rumors about the objects of Minnie's affections.
Oren Gradus, as the minstrel miner, Jake Wallace, sang his wistful balladeer's song with sufficient longing and nostalgia to set the stage for Jim Larken's (Edward Parks) lugubrious lament, prompting the other miners to take up a collection to send the homesick man back home to mother.
Michael Scott's period sets and costumes evoked the rugged look and grimy feel of the 1840s California Gold Rush period, although a number of the props (such as the repeating-rifle and six-shooters) were anachronistic to that decade. As one theater-goer pointed out during intermission, Minnie's repeating rifle — which resembled the famed Winchester 73 (the "gun that won the west") — wasn't invented until the 1870s. Still, Scott's sets mustered the spirit of cowboy films etched in our minds from the familiar John Ford westerns. The interior of the Polka Saloon, anchored by an imposing moose head framed above the bar, was about as real as anything you'd expect to see in a John Wayne film.
One prop that didn't work especially well for simulcast audiences viewing T.V. Director Barbara Willis Sweete's close-up camerawork was the square-shaped confetti used as snowflakes early in Act 2, which resembled nothing like snow I've ever seen — and I live in snow-belt Syracuse, NY. The odd-shaped confetti clung to Deborah Voigt's hair, and remained there, throughout the rest of the act.
Lighting Director Gil Wechsler's use of light and shade to bring the oversized Polka Saloon "down to size" at the end of Act 1, where Minnie and Dick Johnson (Ramerrez) stand alone at the saloon, cast not only a net of intimacy around the couple but also a protective shell that for the moment isolates them from the horde of blood-thirsty miners outside.
The fact La Fanciulla del West does not have memorable melodies that linger in the musical memory long after the final curtain no doubt contributes to this opera's neglect. Lyricism nevertheless abounds throughout this work, and Puccini's use of chromaticism and augmented chords (cresting in the final act) bring an element of freshness to the composer's harmonic vocabulary that may surprise many listeners who have never heard the work. Italian-born Conductor Nicola Luisotti, music director of the San Francisco Opera, crafted a details-oriented rendition of Puccini's adventurous score (the third act is particularly daring harmonically) that was made all the more brilliant by a superb Metropolitan Opera Orchestra seemingly eager to please him.
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus of miners, softly echoing the minstrel's longing for home during the opening scene, did as much to create a veil of melancholia as Wechsler's mournful lighting effects. I was particularly impressed with the chorus's tight ensemble during the rhythmically tricky third-act mob scene, where they stayed in-sync with the orchestra's ensemble acrobatics beat-for-beat. The all-male chorus and its director, Donald Palumbo, were given a separate curtain call.
Because of the inclusion of horses in this opera (five, to be exact), La Fanciulla del West is jokingly called a "horse opera" — a slang term more commonly reserved for film and television Wild West adventure stories. One of these horses is Cordoba, a handsome animal showcased for broadcast audiences at the second intermission, whose impressive stage credits include appearances in Aïda and Carmen.
As best as I could tell during the Saturday matinee, as a critic and as an observer, none of the four-legged supernumeraries made a mess of things…
By David Abrams
Photos: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times (first two from the top); Ken Howard/ The Metropolitan Opera.
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