Cher Public

All about the ‘Girl’ who came to stay

On Thursday, Puccini’s seventh opera, the California Gold Rush romance La fanciulla del West, returns to its birthplace for its first Met performances since 2011. Eva-MariaWestbroek will be back to sing Minnie three Octobers following her Met appearances as a very different virginal heroine, Wagner’s Elisabeth. 

Puccini’s complicated saloon proprietress—steely but sensitive; at ease with many men but protective of her virtue; devoutly religious but not above deceitful tactics—is a role the versatile Westbroek has called her favorite. The Dutch soprano brings with her a decade of Fanciulla experience.

This Minnie will receive her first kiss from two tenors. Yusif Eyvazov takes opening night and two subsequent dates as the gentleman bandit Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson. At the time of this writing, Jonas Kaufmann, a Met no-show since Werthers of March 2014, is scheduled for the final four performances, including the October 27 HD. Zeljko Lucic completes the central love triangle as Sheriff Jack Rance.

Marco Armiliato, a month shy of 20 years following his house debut in Bohème, leads the revival of the Giancarlo del Monaco/Michael Scott production, which itself turns 27 this month.

The day following the production’s October 1991 premiere (the Times‘s Edward Rothstein: “[The Met] made a strong case for treating this peculiar opera with respect and even admiration”), Professor Anita Hill‘s dramatic testimony in Judge Clarence Thomas‘s Supreme Court confirmation hearings—and the responses to same from an all-male senatorial panel—would divide the nation and begin conversations we are still having today.

Although a David Belasco play had been the basis for Puccini’s previous opera, Madama Butterfly, the composer did not immediately settle on Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West (1905) for his followup. In fact, he had difficulty committing to any subject. Nearly seven years elapsed between the premieres of Butterfly and Fanciulla, the longest gap for Puccini to that point. Well into 1907, he was still batting around numerous possibilities.

Some projects he considered in this period and never returned to are tantalizing, while others make odd associations with his name today. There were works by Shakespeare, Hugo, Wilde, D’Annunzio; a new Benvenuto Cellini in a time when Berlioz’s was quite obscure; an operatic treatment of the Marie Antoinette story.

A February 1907 letter to publisher Giulio Ricordi is revealing as to Puccini’s thought process as well as his perfectionist’s eye:

I have been on the lookout for subjects, but there is nothing possible, or rather, complete enough. I have found good ideas in Belasco, but nothing definite, solid, or complete. The “West” attracts me as a background, but in all the plays which I have seen I have found only some scenes here and there that are good. There is never a clear, simple line of development; just a hotch-potch and sometimes in very bad taste and very vieux jeu. […] My dear fellow, I have been tormenting my brains and my spirit.

The Girl of the Golden West it was to be, and the resulting opera had a glittering premiere in December 1910, with Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato creating the main roles under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.

Fanciulla had a mixed reception as it made its way around the world—admired, condescended to and misunderstood in roughly equal measure. Even here in the United States, where the approving treatment of the Bible and guns would seem to make it a sure bet, it was not to become one of Puccini’s most popular works with the public.

It is, however, closer to standard repertoire than anything else the Met has had first, give or take the short operas of the same composer’s 1918 Trittico.

In this three-part series, I will have other things to say about Fanciulla itself, but presently we will begin our trip through its substantial video catalog, which covers 54 years of Minnies, Ramerrezes and Rances.

The first filmed Fanciulla is a black-and-white memento of the opera’s 1963 Japanese premiere in the newly built Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. Embedded Japanese subtitles and a bellowing prompter are drawbacks expected by aficionados of ’60s and ’70s Tokyo telecasts with stars of the period.

The same could be said for the orchestral playing. Conductor Oliviero de Fabritiis has the right integrative touch: major and minor happenings are folded into a seamless tapestry; transitions never announce themselves. But the players of the NHK Symphony cautiously feel their way through a complex, unfamiliar score; the account lacks drama and sweep. It is just as well that the recording prioritizes voices over the tubby orchestral sound.

The outstanding element is Antonietta Stella‘s Minnie. Filmed Minnies get older almost in a straight line from this point (the two most recent will be the oldest to date), but Stella in 1963 was a very pretty 34-year-old with a fresh, shining spinto.

From first entrance, hers impresses as the sound for this music—no one later will challenge that—and her phrasing is stylish and suggestive. “Laggiù nel Soledad” aspires to something distantly recalled, and “Benvenuto fra noi, Johnson di Sacramento” already has a hint of sex in it.

The sophistication and completeness of Stella’s dramatic performance may surprise. A modern director would ask her to tone down the hand gestures, but otherwise would be well pleased. She is likable and winning, an ingenuous Minnie rather than a tart one.

Minnie’s embarrassment at her own dancing is deeply endearing. Her recovery from despair at the end of the first act (“Un viso d’angelo!”) has all the emotional force the NHK’s uninspiring accompaniment fails to provide.

What Stella does with the high-stakes card game is worth study. Although this Minnie tries to maintain her poise in the early hands, she seems about to jump out of her skin. The feigning of illness for Rance’s benefit is convincing. You may feel that if you did not know the plot, you would be fooled too.

Stella so outclasses her surroundings that her absences at the start of each act are arid stretches. The nasal Ramerrez, Gastone Limarilli, can summon a good bawl (e.g., “E ancor bella m’appar!”), but in conversation and wooing he sounds like a second Nick. His stage presentation can be politely summed up as “uncharismatic.”

Anselmo Colzani, plain of tone and well drilled, sounds better but makes even less of an impression. When I say he does nothing noteworthy with Rance, I mean it literally. The card game had arrived before I took a note on him, and the note was that there had been no notes yet.

The Italian comprimari are robust but generalized. This routine production has real horses and is one of only two video Fanciullas to set the final act as specified, in a clearing in the forest. Video direction alternates relatively crisp shots of performers at close range with murky ones of the entire, dimly lit stage.

The heroine’s classic portrayal is the reward for time spent with this. A lesser Minnie would have made it worth discussing only in marshaling a case against nostalgia.

Piero Faggioni‘s seminal 1977 Fanciulla for the Royal Opera House endured for so long that a soprano who had been enjoying the video version since her teen years ended up cast in a 2008 remounting. (This was Ms. Westbroek, who likened starring in it to finding herself on the set of Little House on the Prairie.) The original cast returned for the revival with the telecast in the 1982-83 season.

Not all of Faggioni’s choices for his meticulously detailed traditional show have aged gracefully. Some attendees even in 1977 may have winced at the whiskey-thieving Injun in the opening moments, soon trumped by the estimable Gwynne Howell strolling through heavily blacked up for Jake Wallace’s serenade (ill-advised fidelity to Belasco’s description).

However, the greater portion of Faggioni’sFanciulla remains insightful, witty and absorbing today. The Italian director had a notion of Rance and Ramerrez as mirror images of each other—preening dandies on opposite sides of the law. This Rance is flustered not only by a new rival, but by a rival he recognizes as cut from the same cloth.

The mirroring of the men is driven home just before the card game, when Minnie and Rance brush fingers across the table and there is an unsettling charge between them. This echoes table business we had seen with Minnie and Ramerrez shortly before, in a more companionable, less dramatically fraught moment.

Predictably, the opera’s ensemble side is better handled than in 1963 Tokyo. The English comprimari, unlikely to be taken for idiomatic, are good players in their broad fashion, each conveying strong personality.

Fragile Larkens, younger and better dressed than the others, is seen as the baby brother of the camp. The miners are very timid in individual approaches to Minnie, who ends her Bible lesson by quietly mending fences with unruly Sonora. Francis Egerton‘s vivid, limping bartender Nick eavesdrops on growing closeness between Ramerrez and Minnie at the Polka, motivating his reticence in a crucial moment an act later.

Carol Neblett‘s vocal performance as Minnie is better captured on a 1977 Deutsche Grammophon studio souvenir of the production, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Neblett did not have Stella’s range of vocal colors, and by 1982 her lyric soprano sounded scuffed by daring repertoire choices. The highest notes had become pitched screams.

Her dramatic work, not as sharply etched or as mercurial as some have done, is long on feminine hauteur. She does well parrying the sheriff’s interrogation, faux-casually rocking by the fire to appear unperturbed. Her wholesome good looks (she was an actual California girl) and her resemblance to Jeanette MacDonald have been much remarked upon.

The leading men set formidable standards to be approached only by the best of their successors. Plácido Domingo was in his spinto zenith, the unmistakable sound smooth and rich, like liquid metal. The music is shaped with the scrupulousness and affection of his best behavior. He also looked his most svelte and was impeccably turned out. (Faggioni created the costumes too.)

Silvano Carroli makes a worthy foil as the camp’s strutting authority figure, with a baritone of modest size but incisive quality. This experienced Iago is a riveting actor, as much in throwaway business (wiping his hand in distaste after being cajoled to shake with Sonora) as in divo center-stage opportunities.

No one does better with Rance’s defeat at poker. Carroli staggers backward a few steps, dumbstruck, and manages “Buona notte!” as a parched near-whisper. The cobra, furious, can hiss but cannot strike.

Among supporting attractions, the authoritative Ashby of Robert Lloyd, a distinguished Filippo, Boris and Gurnemanz, manages to hint at hard travels offstage.

Italian sage Nello Santi plows and bucks his way through Puccini’s score—hard-charging, unsubtle but exciting. Musical nuances go underexplored, but Santi’s muscular option is not a bad match with a staging that has the cabin door blowing open, admitting gusts of snow, at the moment the lady swoons into the hero’s arms.

The young baritone playing homesick Larkens early in the 1991 Scala production was so effective in his quiet listening and his emotional outburst that I wanted to know who he was. In fact, he was 27-year-old Pietro Spagnoli, a then-recent Scala debutant, later to enjoy a long career of lead performances in bel canto repertoire. Always watch those miners.

“To hell with beauty; it’s a kitsch notion,” director Jonathan Miller once famously snarled. Not surprisingly, his Fanciulla is less picturesque than those on either side, which share its lead tenor.

Designer Stefanos Lazaridis‘s Polka is sterile and imposing, with an improbably high ceiling, looking like a workshop within a detention facility. “What a pretty little room!” Ramerrez exclaims when he sees Minnie’s barren, cheerless home in the second act. This time he is being very polite.

The production comes to life in Miller’s collaborations with the cast members most responsive to his direction, chiefly the leading lady, polarizing Mara Zampieri. By now, almost anyone who knows her name will associate with it a queer sound: not traditionally warm and sensuous, but hollow, cutting, with frequent straight tone.

Even with this challenging instrument going against her, it is easy to see how she had a long career in major roles. Her performance is an intelligent, expressive and deeply felt synthesis of singing and behavior.

Zampieri, playing a shy, not-so-tough schoolmarm who has been fading on the shelf for a while, is haunting in introspection. Her “L’amore è un’altra cosa” (the initial response to Rance’s declaration of feeling) is meditative, a soft glow emanating from the spirit. In the succeeding “Laggiù nel Soledad,” she is fascinating to watch and hear—Minnie seems to be seeing, within the walls of the Polka, everything she describes.

She is among the best in dramatizing the character’s several shifts of mood in the act-concluding scene with Ramerrez. Her surrender to love in the cabin scene then is a dizzying, delirious plunge into the unknown. When Rance exits and she is left with her prize, Miller has her mount Ramerrez’s unconscious body at “È mio!”—a disturbing predatory tableau made valid by the soprano’s intense portrayal.

Beyond Zampieri’s distinctive, acquired-taste heroine, better pronunciation from the supporting cast than in London, and clearer sound and picture than in Tokyo or London, competitive strengths are hard to come by.

This second attempt is the least of Domingo’s three filmed Ramerrezes. The tone has thickened, the attack is tired, and the charm of eight years earlier has curdled into condescension. His expressions in the Act Two banter about Minnie’s “academy” make an especially sour example.

“Or son sei mesi,” Ramerrez’s self-justifying sob story, stops the show in the house—no routine occurrence. At odds with the euphoric Milan audience, I did not think Domingo found much in it this time. Even so, I know I have Ramerrezes ahead who will compare unfavorably.

Towering Juan Pons, stolid in demeanor and constricted in sound, moves through the role of Rance as if taking great care to leave it exactly as he found it. The Sonora/Rance dust-up has never been duller; it is up to the excellent timpanist to supply the drama in the movement.

Lorin Maazel was, if not terminally ponderous yet, on the way. At times he milks to good effect, as in the dreamy orchestral commentary of the Minnie/Ramerrez bedding-down scene. For every such positive example, there is something like the gallows music (between “Ch’ella mi creda” and Minnie’s heroic entrance), so sluggish and distended that the conductor could be giving his soprano more time to get back from an intermission shopping trip.

Tomorrow: Thoughts on Fanciulla‘s place in the Puccini corpus, and on performances from the Met, Torre del Lago and Amsterdam.