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