* Notes *
The genesis of the La Fanciulla del Westis well known. Puccini, in New York to supervise the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly, saw David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, and caught what he later called the "California Disease." The result -- after several years of struggling with librettists (Carlo Zangarini and his successor Guelfo Civinini), and after a period of unproductive depression following an extra-marital affair and the suicide of his mistress -- was one of Puccini's most musically enigmatic, elusive and psychologically insightful operas.
The central personality of the story, Minnie, reveals herself as a woman both homesick for and ashamed of her humble origins. Over her inner vulnerability she has constructed a steely shell, ever ready with a shotgun to protect herself and the gold entrusted to her for safekeeping by her ragtag group of miners. Her character is complex and contradictory, yet believable. The only female character in the opera (with the exception of the cameo role of the native Indian Wowkle), she is the surrogate mother and to and schoolmistress of a colorful collection of California Gold Rush gold-diggers.
The success of the opera rests entirely on the shoulders of Minnie, her love interest Dick Johnson and the sheriff Jack Rance. If any of the three legs of this dramatic tripod is weak, the opera fails. Unfortunately, the experience of this reviewer on December 14th was that of an utter failure, especially on the vocal front. With the exception of Marcello Giordani's powerfully and expressively sung Dick Johnson, the efforts of the protagonists were woefully inadequate.
To my great regret, the prime responsibility for the failure of the evening rests with Deborah Voigt's Minnie, which was consistently under pitch, lacking in color and marred by a weak top, with most high notes either approximated or lunged at. Having heard this artist at her peak, prior to gastric bypass surgery, when she possessed a dramatic soprano voice of astounding power and beauty, her current vocal condition is especially sad. In consideration of her statement that she underwent the surgery not for cosmetic reasons, but literally in order to save her life after a struggle with morbid obesity, an attitude of understanding and charity has to be brought to a review of her efforts. However, it is irresponsible of Management to continue to cast this artist in dramatic roles which completely exceed her current vocal state. In Ms. Voigt's favor was an obvious affinity for the character of Minnie and some fine acting, especially in Act II.
Lucio Gallo's Jack Rance was marred by clichéd, stiff, operatic gesturing and a strangled top. As noted above, Marcello Giordani's Dick Johnson, an outlaw whose encounter with Minnie both humanizes him and converts him from his renegade criminality, was very impressive and consistent, with an exciting top and a vocal delivery blessed with a variety of color and expression. Only his signature aria, "Ch'ella Mi Creda," (in which, facing execution, he asks his henchmen to spare Minnie knowledge of his fate, but rather to let her believe that he is enjoying a life of freedom far away from the harsh life of the Sierra Nevada), was flawed by curiously broken phrasing and pitch problems.
The numerous supporting roles, especially Dwayne Croft's Sonora, and Tony Stevenson's Nick, were strong, well-acted and well sung, and avoided the dangers of cartoonish over-playing. Conductor Nicola Luisotti displayed total mastery over the many challenges of the score. To create a sense of seamless flow in Puccini s music, with its constant tempo changes, syncopations and difficult vocal and instrument cues, is deceptively, in fact enormously, difficult. Fanciulla, in particular, presents many challenges, not the least of which is Puccini's delaying of the musical resolution of phrases with ambiguous tonalities. complex harmonic structures and deceptive cadences, counterbalanced by melodic material of luminous beauty, none more so than the finale, "Addio, mia dolce terra, addio mia California," which never fails to grip the listener with its haunting sadness.
Luisotti brought a natural affinity to the music and molded the Met orchestra into a fine ensemble, the orchestra in Fanciulla being, as in much of Wagner, a character unto itself. One hopes that he will be a frequent guest at the Metropolitan.
The production, dating from 1993, is conventional and mostly effective. A particularly beautiful touch was the stream of light that entered into Minnie's cabin at the end of Act II, underscoring her feeling of wholeness and redemption as she gives in to her love of Dick Johnson.
* Tattling *
There were many empty seats in the hall, but the audience was mercifully quiet and attentive.