La fanciulla del West premiered in New York in 1910. One hundred years later, it remains a problematic work from many perspectives: its colonialist tinge, which embarrasses us sitting comfortably in the theatre; its exotic representation of the America of the far west; and – perhaps more seriously – a libretto full of somewhat flattened psychological characterizations. In part because of this, La fanciulla seems to cry out for contemporary interpretations – for ways around its most challenging aspects. And this is especially true on the West Coast of America: the very place the opera is set. Far from getting an opera that could dramatize operatically an American identity, those New Yorkers in 1910 got something more disconcerting: something that placed them as the objects of Puccini's musical imagination.
The concern for 'local colour' is something that Puccini had famously explored in his past triumphs: La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. In this SFO Fanciulla (a co-production between the San Francisco Opera, Fondazione Teatro Massimo di Palermo, and Opéra Royal de Wallonie), the quest for visual realism was eagerly pursued in the set designs by Maurizio Balò. Majestic Californian mountains were the background for the whole opera; subtle lighting by Duane Schuler avoided any hint of monotony. The Polka saloon was cosily lit by lamps on stage, which conferred warmth and depth on a space intelligently exploited though clever interactions among the performers, especially in the numerous, crowded ensemble scenes. The only moments in which the actors seemed dwarfed by the imposing background were the most intimate ones – such as the meeting between Minnie and Johnson in her cabin.
Deborah Voigt's entrance as Minnie was beautifully conceived: she stood on the stairs leading to the saloon while delivering her first lines. Indeed, her characterization benefited both from the direction (by Lorenzo Mariani) and from her sensitivity to detail, and her vocal performance was nearly flawless – her bright, vigorous tone filling the house without ever sounding aggressive. What is more, she interacted gracefully with everyone on stage, allowing the audience to understand the reasons why Minnie so fascinates the miners – and also why she has become so attached to them, in spite of her famed independence.
The other entirely convincing character was Sheriff Jack Rance, here taken by Roberto Frontali. His voice is not as dense as Voigt's, but perhaps for this very reason his character came across as just one among the crowd of desperate miners, sharing the same fate far from home. His acting was as bold as the role demands; but he managed to shade it with a sense of disillusionment, as if he knew already that the only gold he cared for – the gold of Minnie's heart – would never be his. One of his most memorable moments was from the aria in which he gives vent to his tortured past: 'Nessuno mai mi amò, nessuno ho amato, nessuna cosa mai mi die piacere!' ('I never loved anyone, no one ever loved me, and nothing ever gave me any pleasure!')
Salvatore Licitra, playing Minnie's beloved bandit Johnson, lacks the sheer puissance of Voigt. He showed some uncertainties at the top of his voice and his portamenti were at times too exaggerated. At the same time, his soft legato and the warmth of his timbre conferred on his role an additional layer of naivety that worked very well at times – after he is captured in Act 3, for example. Indeed, as his performance got better over the evening, with his final invocation of love for Minnie, 'Ch'ella mi creda,' the climax of the story, upstaged only by Voigt's arrival on a (real!) white horse to save him from the gallows.
Comprimario characters were all effectively portrayed. In particular, Kevin Langan's Ashby was none too powerful in vocal delivery, but his dramatic skills made for a wonderful characterization. Brian Leerhuber showed great mastery from beginning to end: his Larkens emerging as one of the most sympathetic characters of the opera.
A special round of applause also for the chorus and their director, Ian Robertson. Every ensemble scene was characterized intelligently, both on the vocal and on the dramatic side. Many details came to the fore about the psychology of the miners: immigrants from all over the world, trapped in a life in which gold and riches are nothing but unfulfilled promises. The ballad of minstrel Jake Wallace (wonderfully portrayed by Trevor Scheunemann) was a highlight in which the gentle tone of the voices and the orchestra's accompaniment melted touchingly.
But the real heroes of the night were conductor Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The progress the orchestra has made throughout this year was fully in evidence: the power of this score came to the surface in all its complexities, perhaps sometime even overwhelming the soloists, although this is a perennial problem with the score. The sound coming from the pit was bright and incisive; all the sections were equally precise and convincing. This was a real success marking the first year of Luisotti's music direction: I look forward to the forthcoming SF Opera season with excitement.
Our latest interview with Nicola Luisotti is forthcoming.
Photos credits (from top to bottom): Cory Weaver; Cory Weaver; Kevin Berne.