by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The night before last Charles and I watched a recent KPBS telecast of the Metropolitan Opera performing Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West — a product of the 100th anniversary production the Met put on in its 2010-2011 season. The opera, based on David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, was actually commissioned by the Met, and in 1910 they shot the works: three superstar singers of the day — soprano Emmy Destinn as Minnie, owner of the Polka Saloon in the California gold-rush town where the action takes place; tenor Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson, a.k.a. Ramirez, a bandit who comes to rob the miners’ gold (which they keep at the Polka under Minnie’s supervision) but gives up the plan when he sees Minnie, whom he’s already met and fallen in love with, is the proprietor; and baritone Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance, the town sheriff and gambler, who is determined to bust Johnson a.k.a. Ramirez and is also after Minnie himself (as, indeed, are virtually all the miners) — and Arturo Toscanini conducting his second Puccini world premiere (after La Bohème).
Alas, in casting the 100th anniversary production the modern-day Met landed only one superstar — Deborah Voigt as Minnie — though Marcello Giordani, the tenor, at least looked a bit like Caruso and Lucio Gallo as Rance held the stage acceptably (it helped that he’s virtually the only character who gets to dress sharply). The production was directed by Giancarlo Del Monaco — whose father, tenor Mario Del Monaco, was ordinarily a loud, insensitive singer but who turned in one of his finest performances when he recorded Fanciulla in 1958 with Renata Tebaldi as Minnie (and the original LP issue of that record is worth having if only because of the cover featuring Tebaldi in a plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans!) — and conducted by Nicola Luisotti. Fanciulla is one of Puccini’s lesser-known but most remarkable operas; musically it’s the most sophisticated thing he’d done to that time, filled with impressionistic harmonies, surprisingly dissonant instrumental writing and leitmotifs — indeed, it’s Puccini’s most adventurous opera besides Turandot, and Fanciulla has one major advantage over Turandot in that Puccini did live to finish it.
Done right, Fanciulla comes off as both a wild, rambunctious picture of the American West in the 19th century and a lush, romantic opera in the Puccini tradition (the gushing motif that signifies Minnie’s and Dick’s growing love for each other was ripped off by Andrew Lloyd Webber for “Music of the Night” in The Phantom of the Opera, just as previous songwriters had ripped off Puccini for “Avalon,” based on “È lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and “Dearly Beloved,” from the love duet from Butterfly). Unfortunately, conductor Luisotti crawled through it on his hands and knees, choosing slow tempi that gave us plenty of time to appreciate the delicacy and creativity of Puccini’s orchestration but didn’t convey the energy this score should also have. I thought for a while who the Met should have got — what modern-day conductor would have ripped through this score the way Toscanini probably did (at least based on the evidence of his Bohème recording) — and the name that kept coming to mind was Gustavo Dudamel.
Deborah Voigt was a first-rate stage presence as Minnie — though she was hampered by the costume designer’s decision to have her wear dresses in all three acts (frankly I would have wanted her to enter like Doris Day in Calamity Jane!) and her voice got a little wobbly above the staff (but then whose doesn’t these days? As much as I love Maria Callas, her example has been a bad one for a lot of subsequent singers: “I can get away with wobbly high notes if I can get the audience to think of me as a vocal actress!”), and Giordani and Gallo were quite competent in their roles but I missed the thrill Del Monaco and Plácido Domingo brought to Johnson in their Fanciulla recordings (and the 1970’s Fanciulla with Domingo and Carol Neblett was conducted by Zubin Mehta, who was certainly alive to both the rambunctious and the romantic parts of the score).
Charles had the same criticism of Fanciulla that a number of the original reviewers in 1910 did: where were the big arias? Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in the last act (he’s about to be hanged by a lynch mob and his last request is to let Minnie think he is free and got away) has a toehold in the separate repertory, but though there are some quite lovely and dramatically appropriate solos for all three principals (Rance’s “Minnie, dalla mia casa,” Johnson’s “Or son sei mesi,” Minnie’s “Laggiù nel Soledad”) there are not any big hit tunes: no “Che gelida manina,” “Mi chiamano Mimì,” “Vissi d’arte,” “È lucevan le stelle,” “Un bel dì” or “Addio, fiorito asil.” (Puccini learned his lesson; though Turandot pushed the envelope of his style even farther than Fanciulla had, at least he studded it with potential hit arias, including “Nessun dorma.”)
Sometimes affectionately, sometimes derisively, called “Puccini’s spaghetti Western,” Fanciulla is one of his most remarkable operas, and I hope this Met telecast builds the audience for it — certainly Belasco’s play has had “legs” apart from the opera stage (it was filmed by MGM in 1938 as a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical, though instead of using Puccini’s score — negotiating the rights would probably have been a nightmare — they cobbled together some songs from old operettas and came up with what is generally considered the weakest of the MacDonald/Eddy films; and two years later Universal parodied it as My Little Chickadee, with Mae West and W. C. Fields) — even though this production, though serviceable and giving a good account of the opera, could have been much, much better.