Cher Public

Hello from the other side

A woman reads from the Bible. There is a dance scene in a tavern. The discovery of blood gives away the protagonist. Sony has released on DVD the Vienna State Opera’s 2013 production of a 20th-century masterpiece. No, not Wozzeck. The other one.  

In the 105 years since its unveiling, Puccini’s La fanciulla del West has come in for much condescension from the learned and the unschooled alike. I was surprised to discover on the opera’s world-premiere page in the Met archive as perceptive an appraisal as I could imagine from someone who had seen a single performance.

This mystery reviewer (“unsigned review from an unidentified theatrical magazine”) showed a keen eye and ear for the opera’s structure, for its strengths and its weaknesses, and for the musical influences Puccini had assimilated. The composer was hailed as “the faithful interpreter of the heart’s tragedies,” and the seamless first act was said to be the best he had ever written. Some of the language is dated, but the analysis and judgments are astute and hold up well today.

I line up with this early champion as the work is close to my heart. In this thoroughly Italian opera, Puccini and his librettists, Civinini and Zangarini, adapting Belasco’s play, nevertheless get in a good deal that is persuasively American: a setting of great scenic beauty that can also be lonely and forbidding.

The desire of the heroine and, ultimately, the hero to better themselves and transcend their circumstances. A community around them that can be prejudiced and brutal, but also is capable of kindness and generosity. More than a “horse opera,” it seems to me, Fanciulla is a story of aspiration and dreams, with a score of considerable intricacy and ingenuity.

The previous Minnies we can evaluate on video are fascinating for the different yet valid approaches they took in collaboration with their directors. Carol Neblett was sensuous, very feminine. Mara Zampieri impressed as tender and shy at heart, putting on a tough front to keep the boys in line; Eva-Maria Westbroek was similar, but with more youthful vitality.

For authentic, steely toughness, one could look to Daniele Dessì (disarming Sonora just by throwing out a hand, not looking at him) and the earlier Antonietta Stella. Barbara Daniels was a lovable, high-spirited tomboy, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl several years before the movie came out.

On the Vienna DVD, her second of the opera, Nina Stemme falls toward the vulnerable end of the Minnie scale, emphasizing the loneliness and unmet needs of Puccini’s girl. Minnie is made much less attractive than Stemme can be offstage, with a series of unflattering costumes and a wig in harsh Lotte Lenya red.

This is a Minnie who, one senses, was deprived of female role models early in life and has had to figure things out on her own. Stemme’s phrasing and acting often have a dreamy, far-away quality – not sadness as much as the promise of it if things go on as they are.

This rich and rewarding part is a notoriously difficult sing, and some of Stemme’s top notes are short and effortful. She makes them but is glad to get off of them. In the important middle voice, however, she has options of color and communicates much through dynamics and line. Much of what she does here, especially opposite her improbably handsome Ramerrez, is very touching. It is hard not to smile at her awkward, charming first dance, which is staged with plenty of room for the pair to move.

On her date with Ramerrez, she is excited and afraid, thrilled and goofy all at once. As that scene goes on, we see Minnie becoming more at ease not only with Ramerrez but with herself. For all of the operas about first love that are routinely staged, such convincing detail in a portrayal of it is rare. Stemme’s insight into and feeling for this character add up to something valuable and special.

Jonas Kaufmann, with his ambitions in German, Italian, and French repertoire, has been in great demand all over the world in the present decade. When I watched another recently released Puccini DVD, the Manon Lescaut from the Royal Opera House, I thought of Plácido Domingo in his overbooked, jet-setting tenor prime.

Nothing much would go wrong, a certain standard could be counted on, but the performances often had an impersonal quality: “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Des Grieux.” Reviewers used the words “industrious” and “professional” a lot. I wondered if Kaufmann had headed down the same road.

This Dick Johnson/Ramerrez, happily, does not find Kaufmann on technically secure autopilot. He responds to this character with singing of care and suavity; he builds a strong rapport with his leading lady, and he brings twinkles of humor to an especially gentlemanly bandit.

This is a Ramerrez who is aware of his physical attractions. He does not exactly preen, but he is very loose and relaxed, impeccably dressed and comfortable in his own body (things Minnie decidedly is not). In the first act, he stretches out a lot, plants one foot on a chair, hops up on a table.

“No, Minnie, non piangete” at the conclusion of the first act is delivered with great tenderness, the tenor’s vaunted soft singing not “displayed” but put to good artistic use. In the stretch of the final act in which Minnie appeals to the miners one by one, and Puccini and the librettists do not give a Ramerrez much to do, Kaufmann remains awake and engaged in his portrayal. Ramerrez, as much as the boys of the Polka, is affected by the scene taking place around him. Minnie’s talk of his transformation is not rhetorical.

These two performances belong at the center of a great Fanciulla, but they can only get this one some of the way there. The other member of the central triangle, Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, an Alberich and a Wotan, has a voice of obvious quality, but it belongs farther down than Jack Rance’s vocal writing.

Konieczny is out of his element both theatrically and in the musical style, lacking the legato to do much with the hard-sell “Minnie, dalla mia casa.” It is not his fault that the production’s Rance is an especially dim and cruel one, slashing Sid’s face as punishment for the card cheating, getting as far as an unbuckled belt in raping Minnie before she manages to fight him off.

There are few standouts in the important ensemble around the main trio, and any Fanciulla veteran will have seen this side of the opera brought off with greater success. Much of the supporting singing is coarse, and opportunities are missed for colorful, lively playing. Begging mention even so are Jongmin Park’s excellent Billy Jackrabbit and Alessio Arduini’s well-sung doubling of Jake Wallace and José Castro. In his first assignment, Arduini is only a voice heard on the radio; in his second, he is a dashing figure in Ramerrez’s gang.

Marco Arturo Marelli’s staging and sets break from some of the opera’s traditions. The period suggested is uncertain. Props such as the radio and an electronic gambling machine put us closer to the present day than to the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, but the production is still rooted in “the West” in its vistas and its fashions.

The Polka is not a saloon but a corrugated metal structure of several levels with a concrete floor, serving as an after-work recreational space. There are hardhats hanging on the wall. The bar is a trailer wheeled into this space, and Ramerrez and Minnie are seen locking it up at the end of the night.

Marelli is good at positioning and moving around a lot of characters, which helps the crowded outer acts. Some of his directorial choices are interesting. Minnie is still annoyed with Sonora when he tries to give her the ribbon, and she snubs him.

In the music following the lesson on love and salvation, he stealthily places the ribbon in her Bible and they have a sweet, wordless reconciliation. (The final scene suggests that the troublemaker Sonora was the one who profited the most from Minnie’s lesson.) The video director undercuts the Bible lesson, eloquently performed by Stemme, with an insert of Rance leering at Minnie.

Ramerrez’s hunt for the Polka’s gold, curtailed by Minnie’s return, is nicely staged: plausible in timing and almost suspenseful. Ramerrez later has a startle response and nearly draws his gun on Wowkle when she surprises him; he is not always suave. Ensemble developments such as the collection to send Larkens home are not as effective as they should be, and things go best when Minnie and/or Ramerrez are around. Whether this is due to the compelling performances of Stemme and Kaufmann or the director’s greater interest in those characters, or both, is difficult to say.

Franz Welser-Möst elicits from the Vienna State Opera Orchestra an account of the score that has virtuoso gleam and finish to it, and Puccini’s motifs are brought out with clarity. I was very conscious, for example, of the callback to Rance’s aria when he shows up at Minnie’s cabin the first time with Nick and Ashby.

But the reading is heavy of hand and a trifle overbearing in its high-powered assault. I found myself thinking of Bruckner symphonies a few times, which may not be a good thing. The edition is the standard one, so we do not get the rarities of Billy “cleaning the glasses” and demonstrating his counting, and the extended remix of the Act Two love duet.

Marelli’s generally realistic production ends on a note of cinematic fantasy that many criticized as jarring and inappropriate, but it is defensible on a symbolic level. The Minnie of this production, so well drawn by Stemme as a woman longing to see something beyond the world she knows, is granted her wish: “Su, su, su, come le stelle!” Those California mountains, for all their majesty and beauty, can hem you in and block the view.

Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

  • eric

    I used to love Kaufmann. But he’s stood me up now two years in a row, with his New York City cancellations.

    Now I’m reevaluating the relationship. Three strikes and you’re out, Jonas!

  • armerjacquino

    Porgy, for the second time this year I find myself reading one of your reviews a couple of days after watching the DVD concerned- and for the second time I am in complete agreement, especially about Stemme’s performance. So much that’s good, but I do think Minnie needs more freedom on high than she’s able to offer here (Laggiu nel Soledad ends… unfortunately). It makes me wonder about her Turandot, which I’ll be seeing on Saturday at the cinema, if I can persuade the other half.

  • eric

    Porgy: Nice review. Thank you.

    Your DVD link points to a page with this legend:

    “Playback Region 2 :This will not play on most DVD players sold in the U.S., U.S. Territories, Canada, and Bermuda. See other DVD options under “Other Formats & Versions”. Learn more about DVD region specifications”

    I can’t figure out how to order a DVD or Blu-Ray disk that plays in the US. Can you help?

    amerjacquino: Are you in the US? Where did you get your disc?

  • PCally

    Wish Westbroek and Kaufmann has sung these role together when her voice was up to the role. Finest Minnie I’ve encountered bar non (and yes, that includes Steber).

    • Bill

      PCally -- Steber, as far as I know sang only one
      Minnie at the Met and that was replacing another
      singer at the last minute in 1966 I think . There is a private CD of her singing Minnie in Florence with del Monaco and G. Guelfi which is supposed to be good. Of the Minnies I heard I liked Tebaldi the best -- by that time her high notes were quite pressed but the middle voice was still so rich and warm -- about 1970

      Maybe the record holder for Minnies was Maria Jeritza --
      She sang the role 55 times in Vienna alone and 14 times at the Met. In the 1913-14 season in Vienna she sang
      Minnie 30 times !!! Her last was a 1953 guest appearance in Vienna to help raise money for the rebuilding of the Staatsoper though she had basically retired by 1939. She came back in the early 1950s for one Rosalinde at the Met and Salome, Santuzza, Tosca and Minnie at Vienna -- no idea what she sounded like but she had many rapturous fans. Minnie may be a voice
      breaker but if Jeritza sang the role 30 times in one
      season and continued for almost 25 years thereafter singling leading roles, obviously her voice was not broken by those Minnies.

      • armerjacquino

        That was Steber’s last Met performance, and she was very upset over the whole thing as she said Bing had offered her the whole run (Kirsten made the same claim).

        Steber’s Minnie with Mitropoulos is mind-blowingly good.

        • mrsjohnclaggart

          This gets discussed a lot here. I think the Steber/Del Monaco/Mitropoulos is hardly obscure. Everyone I’ve ever known who loved Fanciulla knew it. It was widely available on reels when I a girl, and has been pressed on LP and CD since “pirates” proliferated with the big record chains that carried pretty much everything in circulation. It is easy to find today at a range of prices. It’s in decent broadcast sound but there are better sounding broadcasts from the period.

          It one of the truly great Puccini performances, along with the Tebaldi/Tucker/Warren/Mitropoulos Met Tosca of 1956. There’s no account of either score that matches the white hot, utterly abandoned and tremendous (in all senses) Mitropoulos performances — and he was working live with less than virtuoso groups (and yes, Warren makes a lot of mistakes but it doesn’t matter. It’s also a GREAT Tebaldi performance.)

          De Sabata was a very great conductor and the studio Tosca certainly shows it, but it isn’t live, Legge claimed that HE edited it and I’m sorry there isn’t a De Sabata live performance. What he does with the Chenier highlights (Scala ’49) shows an ability to take what looks like nothing on the page and transform it into astounding emotional revelation, his Boheme highlights (live at Scala) are similar with more promising music and the live Verdi Requiems are phenomenal (better than his eccentric studio effort, greatness gone wrong but then Evil Incarnate was forced on him.) Also, the live symphonic material is wonderful if sometimes uneven.

          However the Mitropoulos Fanciulla is so astounding and Steber is so incredible I can’t believe anyone who loves the opera would be without it (it’s also one of the best samples of Del Monaco).

          I have gone on (as have others over the eons of Parterre) about what Steber’s last minute and last Met performance was like and even posted her entrance (it’s on You tube). I’m boring enough so I won’t do it again. it was a sad end to her Met career and obscured a little how great she was; luckily there are many documents live and canned that prove it.

          On reel and probably at one point on LP there were excerpts of old Jeritza trying Salome and Santuzza. They are not on You tube. Sad, they are indescribable.

          I AM NOT WORTHY to be Renata Tebaldi and I saw all her Met Minnies. She was ghastly. It was 1970 and she couldn’t tune the role, belched the chest and screamed the top. It was fine if you were there, the audience went mad no matter what and she was (within her ladylike persona) lively and very moving. There was a riot after every Poker Scene, although The Dear knows what keys she had been in. I was thrilled to see them and am still thrilled to have those memories but the tape that circulates documents much truly awful singing and doesn’t alas capture her presence and personal impact.

          I am so annoying when I go on about things like style: but there are a rhetoric and force that is natural to someone born to a language who is driven to be expressive in it. Puccini who deliberately studied some Monteverdi scores wanted to return to the idea of “recitar cantando” in Italian opera (“acting (by) singing”) and set the text precisely.

          Steber gets very close (but was a genius) but Carla Gavazzi, Tebaldi on her commercial recording (some dicey high notes to the side one of her best), and Toni Starr (Antonietta Stella) in an otherwise jerry-built, provincial, mistake ridden live video from Japan (excellent picture and sound on VAI) are wonderful in ways no non-Italian can be in the role. I saw Zampieri be fabulous about four times, but that awful recording and DVD only hint at what she was like in the theater — her declamation is superb, though — and Dessay is also good.

          There may be things to like even love about others (Barbara Daniels was endearing, Neblett, balls to the wall, Zschau, memorable, Matos highly musical and stylish, ) but the style has become elusive even among Italians under 60 and without it, in my sad old widder’s opinion, the opera works less well.

          • armerjacquino

            Dessi, I hope- I’m not sure a Dessay Minnie would be much to listen to, although she’d probably act the part pretty well!

            • armerjacquino

              Has Amarilli Nizza done it? She’d be great, I should think, especially with that volcanic top C.

            • Porgy Amor

              I agree with every word of this, mrsjohnclaggart.

              AJ, it’s not as though I did any better with poor Daniela Dessi’s name. I made her a guy! :-)

      • PCally

        Bill-Steber’s performances in Florence are simply astonishing. She just throws caution to the wind so totally that it’s simply awe-inspiring. She and Del Monaco also sing the opera uncut and in the original keys, including the famously impossible section of the love duet in act two that to my knowledge is almost never sung live. PLEASE give it in a listen, I’m sure you’ll find it thrilling. It’s the only recording of this opera I listen to on a regular basis.

        I like Tebaldi’s recording of the role quite a bit (which I believe was made a while before she actually sang it onstage) but even in 1959 you can hear her treading cautiously over certain sections of the role where more freedom really helps. Also for a native speaker she really doesn’t do much for me dramatically. But she’s exceptionally likeable, a necessity for the role, and her voice is obviously gorgeous

        Btw Bill I know you aren’t really a fan of Westbroek but I STRONGLY recommend tracking down her DVD of the role from Amsterdam. In 2009 she was still in her prime and she sounds absolutely lovely. The top gives her problems but unlike Tebaldi she’s absolutely fearless (probably a reason why her voice is declining prematurely). Beyond that she just so obviously connects with the role in a way that is so beautiful to watch and the sheer joy and happiness she communicates in what is apparently her favorite role is just mind-blowing. I know I bang the Westbroek drum a lot but I really think that her videography is among the most consistent of any artist. Every one of her DVDS were filmed when the voice was operating at it’s best and she’s superb in each of the them.

        • Bill

          PCally -- thanks for the tip on Westbroek. It is a
          pity I did not see her in best voice. When I did see her she was compelling on stage visually and dramatically but the wobble, so prominent in the recent Tannhaeusers had already set in and that rather turned me off.

          Steber I saw often in my younger days and she was
          my first Violetta, first Elsa, first Arabella, first
          Fiordiligi, first Vanessa and second Donna Anna. I also saw her in concert. She had a steady technique -- Fiordiligi for example held no terrors for her -- though I liked other singers better in her Mozart roles. She sang almost all the Fiordiligis at the Met from 1951 until 1961 when Teresa Stich-Randall made her first appearance at the Met as Fiordiligi and Donna Anna but seldom returned. I regret not hearing her Steber as Konstanze but 1946 was too early for me and those were probably her best years. Her Arabella was eclipsed later by Lisa della Casa.
          Steber was a trooper and it is a pity she was not given the chance to offer her Minnie at the Met earlier but
          the opera was not often in the repertoire and Dorothy Kirsten seemed to have a monopoly on the role for a time after 1961. I do not think Steber sang all that often in Europe -- in Vienna only her Kaiserin (in concert form)
          under Boehm and one Tosca at the Staatsoper in 1957 prior to her Salzburg Vanessas. Mrs. J.C. who probably knows all there is to know about Steber could certainly be more enlightening -- The photos of Steber in the earlier 1940s indicated she was quite glamorous on the stage at that time. When she was singing Elsa
          with Brian Sullivan and Hermann Uhde one critic snidely quipped that Steber (dressed all in white) looked like a Polar Bear with two cantaloupes in front

          • PCally

            Bill-I didn’t quite mind Westbroek as you did. I found the bulk of the problems lay in the top which spread at most dynamics and was often flat. But I still found the timbre quite warm and appealing. And since I’ve never seen Botha as involved as he was in this run (he even managed to be full opposite waltraud Meier when they sang die walkure) I have to believe that Westbroek got it out of him, especially since Levine and the production were straight up messes.

            Have you heard Stebers Elsa from Bayreuth? As pure vocalism it’s of the best on records. I simply adore Steber. Her technique just sounds so on point and while I don’t think she does much interpretivley, the joy and exuberance she emits while singing (you can actually hear it, you don’t even need to see it) is wonderful.

            • Bill

              PCally -- no I do not believe I have ever listened
              to Steber’s Elsa from Bayreuth. Perhaps I shall give it a whirl. Having seen her live at the Met I have to
              admit that other Elsas have impressed me more, Rysanek,
              Gruemmer, Studer, Isokoski The last I saw was Nylund in
              Vienna (with Vogt at his very best) and she is quite good though the voice is just a bit unsteady at times -- were it not, she would be in the Gruemmer class. Eszter Sumegi in Budapest was also very impressive in Budapest in the rather untraditional Katarina Wagner production. Rysanek managed to emit a Rysanek Schrei appropriately in the third act. In the last two decades the Met has not programmed Lohengrin very often though not due to a lapse of good Lohengrins, Elsas and Ortruds during that time frame, or at present. When I was young Lohengrin
              had historically been one of the most performed operas
              at the Met after Faust, Boheme, Carmen etc. but no longer these days. Steber had a wide ranging repertoire and actually did not sing that many Elsas in her career, nor much of anything else in Wagner to my knowledge except Eva in the mid 1940s and a few small
              roles such as Forest Bird, Woglinde and a Flower Maiden very early on at the Met. Did she ever sing Elisabeth,
              Senta or Sieglinde or Gutrune anywhere?

            • armerjacquino

              Wiki says Senta, Eva, Woglinde, Forest Bird, 1st Flower Maiden.

            • armerjacquino

              And in fact Senta was her debut role! Talk about in at the deep end…

            • Krunoslav

              Another big fan of Steber’s Elsa-- uo there with Gruemmer’s among recorded exponents.

              There used to be a love clip of “Einsam in truben Tagen” from the Voice of Firestone on Youtube, but i could not find it.

            • armerjacquino

              Here’s some Steber Elsa:

            • armerjacquino

              And t’other one, from Bayreuth:

            • PCally

              Bill-Steber probably wouldn’t qualify as my favorite Elsa but vocally she’s really super. You should certainly seek it out also for Varnay as Ortrud and Keilberth at the helm. The whole thing has superb theatrical atmosphere. And the sound quality (this was a commercial release, and in general Bayreuth broadcasts seem to always have fine sound) is terrific and perfectly clear.

              I love each of the women you mention (except for Nylund who I haven’t seen but tend to find dull), especially Grummer and Studer. Studer’s commercial cd finds her slightly out of it but her two videos show her in top form. Grummer is wondrous for Kempe but she’s in even better voice in the Bayreuth recording opposite Rita Gorr.

              Rysanek also has a Bayreuth recording (the year before when the production premiered) where she emits that very scream you mention in act three, to thrilling effect. She’s also in unusually even voice and it’s among her most accurate performances. Unfortunately Varnay is really not at her best there, the voice sounds lethargic and stodgy.

              However my favorite Elsa (of all time?) is Mattila who totally transformed the Robert Wilson production and whose voice at that moment in time was among the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I went twice in 1998 and three times in 2006 and sat way up in the family circle and her voice was just perfect.

              There used to be excerpts from the telecast which had better sound and video quality but this is still a solid indication.

            • Bill

              PCally -- I forgot about Mattila. I did see her as Elsa and basically enjoyed all of her performances in different roles to date including her Fidelio (not a dramatic voice but like Janowitz well sung).

      • Thanks to recommendations on these pages, I bought the Florence Fanciulla and it is simply one of the best Italian opera recordings I’ve heard. Mitropolous and Steber are sensational. And del Monaco is nearly on their level. Guelfi is less sensational but still quite good. Highly recommended!!!

  • Another excellent and evocative review. Thanks, Porgy.

  • njcolman

    Porgy, Bravo -excellent review of a too often overlooked Puccini work. If done correctly and sung with conviction I would rank Fanciulla at or neear the best of Puccini’s works. This production stayed close to the libretto, shiftin time a bit but the saloon was a saloon miners were minersa. Why couldn’t a US company rent/borrow this production? Singers:

  • MissShelved

    I, too appreciated the production. I come at opera from a theatre rather than a vocal background (this might not be the forum for me…). I realize the that ‘verisimilitude’ in realistic theatre and in grand opera may not exist in the same galaxy, but I do appreciate when singers (and their directors) make choices that show a human side. This was only my 3rd “Fanciula” but I was deeply relieved to see this staging of Dick’s rescue. One would think that in order to save a man from hanging, the first thing to do would be to remove the noose from his neck. So far, I had not seen this done. No, she stands there (in one case right at his side, unimpeded) and sings away while Dick looks stoic (and maybe slightly worried). I was glad to see Stemme’s Minnie go right for the noose. And Kaufmann as Johnson had the good grace, despite all the bluff about his willingness to die, to look damned grateful for it.