Giacomo Puccini’s horse-opera version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,”  La Fanciulla del West, based on David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West, enjoyed the status of a curate’s egg for quite a while. Its popularity dwindled after its initial, and wildly successful, premiere at the Metropolitan in 1910 starring Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn, and Pasquale Amato and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Since it was the first new opera commissioned by the Met it generated a lot of excitement in the media and with the public. Critics mostly fell over themselves for the glories of the music, mise en scène (real horses on stage!), the singing and conducting.  

Once that initial enthusiasm died down, however, Fanciulla only intermittently held the boards except for the occasional presentation in Italy and, oddly, in Germany where it seems to have always held a popular spot on the operatic radar. Marilyn Horne even sang the soprano lead when she was apprenticing at the Gelsenkirchen Opera in the 1950’s. After a 30 year absence the Met gave it a brushing off in 1961 and then another new production 30 years later in 1991. So it’s been an occasional pleasure over the years.

I think Fanciulla finds Puccini at the very top of his craft. His score is over-lowing with melody and his orchestrations discover him reaching constantly for new colors and textures. It could be argued that they are the most inventive of his compositional career. It has been argued that he did a little borrowing from the likes of the Messrs. Debussy, Stravinsky, and Strauss. It’s finale is poignant but problematic in that it’s music lacks the grand power necessary to complete the drama.  Also, in a “which came first?” conundrum it would be interesting to find out how many Hollywood film composers, many of which were German expatriates, had been introduced to Fanciulla’s charms before they started writing music in the Western film genre.

The leading tenor role of Dick Johnson had been tailored to the formidable gifts of Enrico Caruso who had a good solid B-flat and wasn’t much comfortable above that.  No surprise then that Placido Domingo would come to champion the piece and he was part of a landmark production at Covent Garden in 1977 in a slightly over the top staging by Piero Faggioni (who couldn’t have spent much time in the southwestern United States) with sets by Ken Adam (of James Bond 007 fame) led by Zubin Mehta and starring a magnificent Carol Neblett as Puccini’s “Girl.” Deutsche Grammophon recorded it that year and thanks to the addition of Sherrill Milnes’ black-as-pitch Sheriff Jack Rance and the vivid work of the Covent Garden male ensemble (which boasted more than a few major voices in the making) it remains the touchstone for this work on record.

The casting of the “Girl” is really the toughest part about Fanciulla. Minnie has to be a combination saloon mistress, school marm, and sister to her gold miners. In the bargain she needs to fierce, feminine, a crack shot and have the voice of an Italian Brunnhilde.  Them’s big boots to fill and finding the soprano to really pull it off is a lot like panning for gold.

Christof Loy’s production from the Stockholm Opera was mounted in Frankfurt last year and the results were thought good enough to issue on CD by Oehms Classics. In the theater a performance of this level of competency would undoubtedly fall on grateful years but under the microscope of the microphone the sum of its parts don’t hold up so well to closer scrutiny.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle is a little heavy-handed right from the Vorspiel (introduzione). The ensuing poker game needs a quicker, lighter, hand to whip along Puccini’s bustling orchestrations. Instead it sounds like the musical accompaniment for a saw mill working at full bore. There’s a general feeling of deliberateness that pervades the performance from the beginning. It’s not an informing of the musical architecture in the style of Lorin Maazel with his Puccini performances. We get plenty of detail you’ve probably never heard but the drama is paying the bills.

The lead-in to Minnie’s entrance with the barroom brawl is sluggish.  In Act II during the struggle Minnie has with Rance before the blood drops from the rafters Wiegle actually slows down to a dirge. During the struggle not during the discovery, with the pizzicatto on the harp, which can be magnetic when it’s paced properly. Hearing it played just sub-par makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off.

Meanwhile the Frankfurter Opern und Museums Orchester plays very well. They’ve got a seriously schmaltzy string section and the timpani and percussion is particularly strong. Perhaps a bit too sturdy since the card game at the end of Act II is the loudest example of orchestral silence I’ve ever heard—although that could be engineers twirling away with their little knobs.

The other problem I have with this performance is the handling of all the parlando passages. Dramatically some of the choices are either too weak or way too strong and I guess we lay that at the Director’s feet. There’s that bittersweet moment right at the outset with Jim Larkins breaking down from homesickness and the miners take a collection to send him home. Here Jim’s initial wail sounds like he’s just been mistakenly branded. Hard to bring it all the way down emotionally for the humming chorus that follows.

The male ensemble of the Frankfurt Opera is strong but there are a lot of character voices here in various stages of decrepitude and Fanciulla can rise or fall on the quality of its comprimario ensemble. Sadly, there’s a Harry whose every utterance is nearly a liability and his brief solo contribution to the opening Miner’s chorus is precarious at best. The Native American Wowkle (Elizabeth Hornung), never a high point in political correctness, sounds well past her child-bearing years here.

The role of the Sheriff Jack Rance seems to be some sort of baritone graveyard. Not good enough apparently for someone who can really still sing.  Ashley Holland has a wobble so big it sounds like the earth is about to slip off its axis. Really it’s an oscillation. The only saving grace is that it’s spread consistently throughout his range. By the final act when he’s limbered up and the voice it showing some core it’s too late to save his characterization.

Even more pity should be shown to our tenor hero/villain Carlo Ventre as Dick Johnson alias the evil bandit Ramerrez.  Mr. Ventre has a fine voice even if his delivery is a tad wooden. He sounds, at times, like Marcello Giordano’s younger brother and I’m not certain that’s a compliment. There’s a burr about his sound that gives it a bit of a rough edge  and he love’s rolling his r’s to get from note to note which is kind of provincial. Like when slopping Italian’s elide everything with an “eh” vowel.

A more pressing problem is there doesn’t seem to be any ring or carrying power at the top of the voice. His big Act II confession, “Or son sei mesi’,” which is a guarantee of glory for any tenor who sings it well, gets torpedoed from the pit. Weigle swamps the poor man on the climactic phrase so badly that even the knob-twirlers couldn’t remedy it apparently. Same for his big phrase at the climax of “Ch’ella mi creda”: You can hear he’s in there. Somewhere.

Our Minnie, Eva-Maria Westbroek, has many positive attributes that make her a worthy exponent of this role. The voice is beautiful, and very warm, and her Italian is correct if not flavorful. She just never seems to take a strong enough hand dramatically at the moment she’s been given. She does a little scoop up in the phrase leading to the high C in “Laggiu nel Soledad”  that makes you think she’s in her comfort zone and about to do something spectacular. But once she’s made certain she’s hit the C square on, and it takes a moment, all she does is glissando down and get the hell off it. Otherwise she’s very secure with nary a toe set wrong. I’d just rather have someone who felt a bigger connection to the text which, frankly, is the thought I always carry away with me from her performances of anything.

The sound capture on this recording is so extraordinarily sumptuous and the engineering of such commitment that you could hear a pin drop on the stage of the Oper Frankfurt. Unfortunately the entire cast is plodding about in boots so there’s a healthy amount of stage noise to contend with. The orchestra, for all its calculated leadership, really is the star of this recording even if they’re been miked too hot by comparison to the voices on stage. Gorgeous sonics do not a performance make.

Futilely I had hoped that this recording might give us the extended version of the Act II love duet which has only been commercially recorded once, to my knowledge, on the RCA Leonard Slatkin with Eva Marton, overparted as Minnie, and Dennis O’Neill, under owered as Ramerrez. It’s a thrilling couple of pages and I keep waiting for singers brave enough to include it because it’s the only good reason to visit that recording.

So, I’m going to be charitable and give this affair a solid 7 rating. If you’re a fan of Ms. Westbroek you surely will not be disappointed. If you’re on the side of Mr.Ventre you may find yourself straining a bit at the climaxes. But don’t we all from time to time?