La fanciulla del West

La Fanciulla del West at the Met

Met-fanciulla1 Metropolitan Opera's current production of La Fanciulla del Westmarks the 100th anniversary of the opera's world premiere. The Unbiased Opinionator attended the performance last Tuesday.

* 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.

Drew Landmesser Orpheus Event

Wagon-fanciulla * Notes * 
Orpheus hosted an event with Drew Landmesser, San Francisco Opera's Director of Production yesterday before the matinée of Fanciulla. After a lovely brunch in the Littlefield Intermezzo Lounge, Landmesser spoke about his involvement with SF Opera, and his previous posts at Lyric Opera Chicago and Houston Grand Opera. It sounds like he truly loves his job, even when speaking about the various challenges backstage, especially as far as space is concerned. The worst part of Landmesser's job is certainly having to organize the parking.

Landmesser took us on a backstage tour, and we even got to stand on the set of Fanciulla. We learnt that they were not entirely sure they were going to get the set until April 2 of this year, when it was shipped from Palermo. The set looked nice from close up, the rock wall is sculpted nicely, one side being red, the other being white, for the different acts. We had to leave the stage so that the ballroom brawl could be rehearsed, evidently they rehearse it each time before the performance.

After the event, some of us stayed for the opera, though most Orpheus members had heard it before earlier in the run. I read the score at the top of house, and noted that the harp I had seen backstage was marked in the score as "arpa interna." Everyone sounded great from back there, the three principal singers are quite loud, as is the orchestra, but the balances are pretty good. The orchestra only obscured the singers two or three times. It also became more obvious to me how Andrew Lloyd Webber had stolen a melody from Fanciulla for "Music of the Night."

* Tattling * 
The group of about 30 that showed up for the Orpheus event was characteristically well-behaved. Unfortunately this was less true of the opera audience, and during a quiet part in Act II a cellular phone rang several times. The usher tried her best to get the person in L 102 to turn off the phone, but the latter did not even hear the ringing, and did not know how to operate it. At the second intermission Axel Feldheim was kind enough to help the person in question, who was very embarrassed and apologetic.

La Fanciulla at SF Opera

Roberto Frontali (Jack Rance), Deborah Voigt (Minnie) and Salvatore Licitra (Dick Johnson), photo by Cory Weaver * Notes * 
San Francisco Opera's latest production of La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) opened last night. The production, directed by Lorenzo Mariani and with sets from Maurizio Balò, is cute without being busy or cluttered. The male chorus sounded fine and the ensemble cast did well. The waltz in Act I was particularly lovely. Current Adlers Brian Jagde (Joe), David Lomelí (Harry), Austin Kness (Handsome), and Maya Lahyani (Wowkle) all had respectable appearances. Nicola Luisotti held the orchestra together, creating a luxuriant sound.

Timothy Mix was tender and vunerable as Sonora and Roberto Frontali threatening as Sheriff Jack Rance. Salvatore Licitra's voice was very sweet and warm as Ramerrez. A few of his highest, loudest notes showed some strain, but for the most part he had a nice ease. Deborah Voigt's Minnie was spunky and full of spirit. She has a bit of a tinselly quality, lacking the warm creaminess she had in former years, but overall she was quite winsome.

* Tattling * 
The press department did end up giving me tickets for this performance. The volunteer usher in front of us in Row L Seat 23 used her cellular phone as a flashlight to read the program during Act I. After the first intermission, an audience member was sitting in that seat, and the usher insisted on seeing the ticket. The audience member could not produce it and stormed off. It was not clear exactly what transpired, but the usher did not return to L 23, and the audience member sat in K 17 with her friends instead.

Though not constant, there was too much talking during the music and the singing.