Cher Public

The boys in the back room

fanciulla_cover“The American Way of Life, lightly satirized, lies at the heart of our production: it is an adventure that takes place somewhere between Wall Street and Hollywood.”

Nikolaus Lehnhoff, as can be surmised from these liner notes, makes full use of stereotypically “American” imagery throughout his production of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West:  Wall Street traders, menacing skyscrapers, Leo the MGM Lion, and more.   It is unclear, however, what it all adds up to, since there is little overarching or specific meaning in this mishmash of Americana. 

The opera opens with a video of frenzied traders on the chaotic floor of the NYSE.  I assumed this meant his production would be a commentary on the financial crisis. Well, not so much, since Lehnhoff essentially sticks to telling the story of Fanciulla that we all know, more or less.  The Polka, a leather bar with a gay bartender that inexplicably attracts only straight men, is dominated by projections of oppressive skyscrapers looming overhead.  

Clearly Lehnhoff vaguely wants to convey something, like maybe that the “miners” are all under the yoke of the slick city-dwelling finance execs of Wells Fargo?  This could explain the ragazzi‘s mechanical movements, which perhaps suggest that they are all cogs in a money-making machine.  Lehnhoff, however, does little to develop this angle, and in this repertoire, where I prefer to feel rather than think, it just seems easier not to ask any questions.

The truth is, despite all the head-scratching his production may induce, Lehnhoff is a good director and essentially directs a good traditional production, dressed up in fun nonsense.  The relationships between the three main characters are believably and clearly developed, and full of nice touches, such as Minnie’s awkward fidgeting after she rather forwardly asks Johnson what his “number” is.

And what of the singers?  Eva-Maria Westbroek‘s lirico-spinto soprano suits Puccini’s music quite well with its glamorous, sensuous middle and vibrant top, which occasionally sounds strained. She does not have the crisp diction one would expect in such a conversational part, but she does have a very sharp and pointed sense of rhythm, which gives shape and definition to the important parlando passages. 

A Minnie who is not afraid to mess up her hair, Westbroek throws herself into the poker scene of Act 2 with palpable desperation, delivering a taunting “Tre assi e un paio!” although she is clearly tiring and has to take an inordinate number of breaths in her final lines.  Speaking of Act 2, why is innocent Minnie’s trailer, with walls upholstered in eye-popping cerise, made to look like a porn star’s dressing room?  I know, I know, I said no more questions.

Lucio Gallo looks and acts well as Jack Rance, but sounds less so.  His voice is worn and leathery, especially on top, and he does better when he does not have to force.  The same can be said for Zoran Todorovich‘s wooden-voiced Dick.  To his credit, he manages the high-lying passages of Act 2 well enough, but falls disappointingly flat in the climactic passages of Act 3.  Conductor Carlo Rizzi delivers a tight, forward-moving performance, yet is sensitive to the singers and their needs. 

I have to admit I have no clue what Lehnhoff’s final tableau is about.  Minnie (who has transformed into a retro Hollywood glamazon) and Ramerrez (now in a tux) are standing atop an illuminated staircase in the middle of a scrap-pile of junked cars, with a projection of Leo the MGM Lion silently roaring in the background, as a giant $20 bill envelops the entire screen. I’m sure Lehnhoff could give a very long explanation on how this is some commentary on the American dream, but frankly it doesn’t really matter. 

I ultimately found this production to be a whole lot of fun but not inane, paradoxically saved by the traditional aspects of Lehnhoff’s direction.  I am not one to be offended on behalf of any composer, so all the regie window-dressing was at its best entertaining and at its worst puzzling.  This DVD is definitely not for those who need to see Minnie riding in on a horse, but also not for someone looking for Lehnhoff at his most insightful.  This Fanciulla is recommendable, however, for the excellent direction of the singers and committed, slightly-crazed Minnie of Eva-Maria Westbroek. 

It should be noted that all the usual cuts are made and then some, including the cheating scene in Act 1.  Also, the English subtitles range from absurd to nonsensical. 

  • messa di voce

    Todorovich’s Dick is wooden; TT says Giordani’s is beefy; and all’s right with the world.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Westbroek is absolutely radiant here. I watched this DVD about a week ago and was blown away by her. Her top, especially in the first act is a bit iffy but in the second is much better. Granted those notes aren’t ala Rysanek but then whose are? But she made me believe she WAS Minnie and feel for her from the start until the end. I loved the ending too in her spectacular dress looking like a mix between Dietrich and Monroe. The men were less successful. Conducting and orchestra good.

  • Out of topic, but worth mentioning:

    Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod has died at 108. For those who are not familiar with the name he is Altotum in the Zefirelli Turandot with Marton and Domingo.That performance earned him the distinction of being the oldest singer to debut at the Met; he was 84 or thereabouts.

    Those who want to sample his art can come visit me at my blog, I have put a small page to meorialize him.


  • CruzSF

    Strange, the Act I cheating scene wasn’t cut in the recent SFO production.

  • Camille

    Thank you, scifisci, for your review.

    In spite of my good feeling about Miss Westbroek’s work, a she is quite a riveting performer, I feel she hasn’t really the voice for this and I’ll stick with someone else.

    I wish someone would have thought to have belted that hideous trench coat thing she is wearing, as the way it had been styled makes her look like a sequoia tree from the Sierras.

    The solution to Lehnhoff’s ending is obvious. Minnie and her Dick headed south to Hollywood, where they have opened a casino. Mr. and Mrs. Billy Jackrabbit come to maintain their home and gardens, and Nick finally shows up and comes out.

    They all live happily ever after, just like Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

    • richard

      Camille, just curious, who would seem a better choice than Westbroek? There are a couple of Italian sopranos, most notably Dessi, that do the role but I suspect Dessi has pretty much passed her sell by date. She might have the authority for the role though.

      On the subject of Fanciulla videos, has anyone seen the RAI film with Frazzoni, and I’m not sure of the tenor,
      Ken Neate????

      I’ve heard an audio of Frazzoni as Minnie and like her a lot although some of the tops are ,ah, a little under. But she has tons of warmth for the role.

      • Camille

        richard, I just don’t know.

        Someone yesterday, oh yes it was QPF, said Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, and OH YES, that fabulous Amarilli Nizza, of the fantastic high C (heard here about a year ago in an excerpt Cieca posted from a Tabarro performance).

        Yeah, I remember Ercole Farnese saying she had cancelled her Palermo gigs, happening right now, to premier her Minnie for the Japanese, instead. Surely, erring on the side of modesty.

        Miss Westbroek has a fine middle voice but her higher notes are a little too effortful --for my view-- to ride that bronco. I think a higher soprano (a la Steber or Kirsten, who really, really is expert in using the voice is much better than the usual ambitious lirico-spinto. Minnie voices are kind of rare, and nobody give a hoot anyway, as the Girl doesn’t get done for a variety of idiotic reasons. Shame, as it is a great score. Wish Maria Jeritza could do it for us! She would probably be just about right, in my opinion, richard, but then I am a hopeless stickler and old fogey, old lady.

        Unfortunately, from what little I have heard of Daniela Dessi at this point, I think she is past it. I liked her a lot, the little I’ve heard her. She would doubtless want fabulous Fabio to be her Dick, and the combination plate would probably make me bilious and induce yet another gall bladder attack in Camille.

        Oh, the first time I heard Frazzoni sing Minnie (on recording, not live), I couldn’t stand the vibrato, but since have listened to it and warmed up greatly to her wonderful characterization. Her personality in the Zucker magnum opus won me over completely. Lovely lady.

        I think I would vote for Amarilli Nizza of the K.O. do acuto. She is also young and nice looking and believable as Minnie. So many Minnies are such hardened old harridans. They look like they could take out Jack Rance in a thrice, rather than be intimidated by him.

        One does wonder just what the Minnie of Birgit Nilsson would have been on the stage…that, along with Franco Corelli, would have been a fabulous roller coaster ride!!!

        • richard

          I agree that Amarilli Nizza seems like a promising choice. But I thought she hadn’t actually done it yet so it seemed a bit premature.

          There just don’t seem to be a lot of choices for the role. I agree, I don’t like harridans in Fanciulla, as much as I dislike tough, fishwives as Tosca. I’ve seen Toscas that screamed “Quanto? Il prezzo” as they slammed the table so hard that the silverware rattled off it to the floor.

          Actually, I’m willing to give a pass on brilliant tops in Fanciulla, as perverse as it seems, but I really need warmth and sincerity.
          Tough call though.

      • Gualtier M

        I think that Frazzoni RAI “Fanciulla” movie might be available from the usual sources (Encore, Premiere Opera and maybe with time Hardy Classics distributed by VAI). There are clips from it on the “Stefan and the Divas” video where Frazzoni is interviewed (in a bedazzler sequined sweater and full showgirl makeup gesticulating like Magnani on crack).

        On the subject of Magnani on crack, Dessi has a quite good DVD of “Fanciulla” from Torre del Lago filmed only a season or two ago. She is really fine in it -- the middle has that smoky pomegranate color of the old Cetra sopranos. The top has a bit of wiry metallic overlay but is easy and accurate. Needless to say, she nails all the parlando and has charm. Dessi is like a throwback to the 1950’s and she is petite and lively onstage. Fabio Armiliato is not a dead loss -- good bright tone and he knows his way around verismo as does she. Lucio Gallo looks great in pimp daddy outfits -- skin tight shiny black pants, tight jackets and a fur coat with a broad brimmed hat tilted at a rakish angle. Vocally…well Gobbi he ain’t. He has stage skills and linguistic flair that make up for an unattractive instrument. And Rance isn’t Di Luna or Simon Boccanegra. Little nobility or bel canto required. Alberto Veronesi conducts the Torre del Lago performance with real sweep and color and he has FABULOUS conductor hair. I want to escape to a tropical island with that hair (if Mo. Veronesi behaves himself and does as he is told he can come along too).

        If the Met puts out the “Fanciulla” HD transmission with Voigt and Giordani on DVD, Gallo’s Jack Rance will be documented three times on video as he is in the Westbroek performance reviewed above.

  • Camille

    I agree, richard, about those fishwife Toscas. Seen and heard too many of them critters.

    Okay you have a very good point about the warmth and sincerity for this part, it is absolutely critical, and probably does, in the end, trump the tops.

    Look, I know I will be hung from the nearest tree for saying this, but the much shat-upon Mara Zampieri does do a wonderful job of characterization in the film. The voice is, ah weird as f#@#k, but she is a marvelous actress. There is the good old Carol Neblett with Placidone when he still sang tenor.

    Maybe Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs (and who the HELL is Meagan Miller — who is singing it in Palermo right now along with Blancke-Biggs??) will end up singing some of them, like she did in Tosca last year. Maybe it’s gonna be a domino effect where it’s a Minnie every night with a different Dick.

    oops, did it again.

    Hell if I know.

    • Jay

      Camille, you may or may not be hung, but I agree with you re: Zampieri. I enjoy her Minnie, partly because of its Italiante, um, feel.

      • Camille

        I’m not hung UP, Jay!

        Too much Veuve Clicquot has permanently left me loose.

        Hope you get to see the Scala Valkyrie, but at least you got to hear it, no?

        • Jay

          I heard the Walkure, yes, Camille, and will see it eventually, sometime, somewhere. Thanks for clarifying about the hanging.

  • Signor Bruschino

    I watched this yesterday (rather than going to the Met’s paint by numbers production…) and regarding the ending, the image of the money, and the couple framed at the end in the back of a dollar bill was adorable- thinking about it, its as if they are ‘in’ the White House (Nancy and Ron???)… While the staging wasn’t perfect, I have been thinking about the images all night- something that I never seem to do with any production I see in NY lately. Thank goodness for DVD