Puccini: La fanciulla del West

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 17 September 2008 3 stars

Jose Cura Puccini's interest with Wagner, Debussy and Richard Strauss is apparent on every page of the score of La fanciulla del West, which features such intensely-packed orchestral writing that Webern wrote to his mentor Schoenberg of its 'originality' and 'special sounds'.

The Royal Opera's latest revival of the opera reveals both its strengths and flaws. Antonio Pappano leads a highly-charged, if occasionally overpowering, performance of the score from the pit, full of understanding, detail, pace and shape, and José Cura's multi-dimensional interpretation of the role of Dick Johnson has grown, if anything, from the last time he performed it at Covent Garden (in 2005).

But for me, Piero Faggioni's production – now over thirty years old – in James Bond designer Ken Adam's sets is so much a product of the 1970s that the overall effect is tired and anachronistic. Faggioni is also responsible for the lighting, which is so dim that it is difficult to see the singers' faces clearly from a distance, and the costumes, which are perhaps the most old-fashioned aspect of all; the direction of the actors also seems to lack motivation in many places. Opera production has moved on a long way since this warhorse of the company's repertory was new, and although there's an impressive solidity about the show, it's hard to buy into the production as theatre (though the audience was heartily enthusiastic at the final curtain).

However, I feel – perhaps controversially – that part of the problem lies in the work itself. If Puccini succeeds in elevating the importance of the orchestra, Pelléas-like, into a protagonist in the drama, he does it at the expense of the vocal characterisations of the smaller roles and the miners – something he worried about, quite rightly, while writing the piece. One can imagine the opera working better in concert, where the overblown orchestration could be appreciated without the distractions of one of Puccini's least interesting, dramatic and sexy librettos. The hour-long first act represents a sprawling, episodic exposition, in which it takes a long time for business to get underway. The duet at the end of the act is sensuously scored but lacks the dynamite and classical tension of the equivalent numbers in Tosca and Bohème.

Jose Cura Tension is also undermined in both the second and third acts. The heroine, Minnie, plays a card game with the sheriff, Jack Rance, for Dick Johnson's life, and Puccini scores it brilliantly; but because we've seen Minnie cheat while Rance's back is turned, the tension is already dissipated. Similarly, the fabulous opening of the third act is ruined when Johnson's approaching death at the gallows is avoided at the last minute when Minnie arrives to persuade the men to forgive him. In spite of a somewhat laboured Bible class scene during the first act, this moment of redemption is totally unbelievable and a little risible.

So Faggioni succeeds in building an able production for a big house around this material, but there's probably no way around the libretto's inherent problems.

That said, Cura's Dick Johnson is a magnificent role assumption; indeed it's one of his finest, in my opinion. The expressive vocal writing – free and conversational rather than classically rigid - is well matched to his talents, while it's a treat to see a singer-actor of his stature inhabit a character as fully as he does here. He's every bit Ramirez the Bandit, and he made a particular impression in the final two acts – which call upon him to declare passion, fall about dizzily while bleeding from a severe wound and give a moving speech before his death – at this performance.

Less wholly convincing was Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie. She conveyed the maternal tenderness of the role well and sang generously, but she is ill-suited to Puccini vocally because she does not have the mettle in the voice to ride the orchestra or reach the top notes with ease. She was perfectly efficient and very touching as an actress but less thrilling than in Lady Macbeth and the Ring Cycle due to an ill match of voice and repertoire.

Jose Cura and Eva-Maria WestbroekIt was surely a miscalculation, too, to bring back Silvano Carroli to sing Jack Rance again after having played the role in 1977, 1978 and 1982. His acting was sometimes pantomimic and over-obvious, but the main problem was the wear on the voice occasioned by the passage of time; he had consistent intonation problems throughout the evening and was no match for Cura. He was also notably outsung by the reliable Eric Halfvarson, who cut an imposing figure as Ashby and ought to be hired to play larger roles. Bonaventura Bottone also made his mark as Nick and Vuyani Mlinde (a Young Artist) was arresting as Jake Wallace, the minstrel. The other roles were mostly filled competently, but there was a slightly lacklustre feeling during the first act, when the miners are more centre-stage than in the later acts.

Antonio Pappano's conducting has rarely been so overtly passionate and fluid as it was here. Yet again, one has to admire his total control of both stage and pit, but what impressed was the fire of his approach, compared to a rather understated Tosca earlier in the year, for instance. This time, he was so thrusting that the singers were occasionally drowned out, but the symphonic aspect of the piece was extremely well served by his presence; at the other end of the spectrum, the quiet double bass ostinato during the card game was spine-chilling. A little more momentum might have helped, but otherwise the Pappano-Cura partnership was the most pleasurable aspect of the evening.

By Dominic McHugh

Interviews with singers appearing in this production:

Jose Cura on La fanciulla del West and Turandot (September 2008)
Jose Cura on Stiffelio (April 2007)

The season continues on 23 September with a new production of Cavalli's La Calisto starring Veronique Gens, whom we interviewed about the role of Giunone. Click here to read the full article.

Photograph credits: Catherine Ashmore.