Cher Public

Minnie happy returns

The Fanciulla del West video overview begun yesterday resumes, as Puccini’s Girl closes out the 20th century and gallops into the 21st. But first, a few words on the opera’s place in the repertory.  

The world is expecting an opera from me, and it is high time it were ready. We’ve had enough now of Bohème, Butterfly & Co.! Even I am sick of them! But I really am greatly worried! I am tormented not for myself alone, but for you, Signor Giulio, and for the house of Ricordi, to whom I wish to give and must give an opera that is sure to be good.”

Letter from the composer, 1907

Most of us in 2018 would agree Puccini met his aims, but the world never has had enough of Bohème, Butterfly and company. Despite itsambition, ingenuity, richness and novel setting—or perhaps because of those qualities—Fanciulla never has approached the popularity of the four Puccini hits that preceded it.

Fanciulla was the Met’s first world premiere work, and its 104 performances to date are good for 60th place on the all-time Met repertory list. This is a respectable ranking, but even at the theater for which it was written, Fanciulla trails operas unfashionable for some time. October’s performances will get it past Mignon (last performed 1949) but not Martha (1968), and it is several revivals from threatening Huguenots(1915!).

The Met is not an anomaly. Operabase’s statistics covering five seasons rank Fanciulla ninth in worldwide performances among Puccini’s 12 operas, counting the Trittico segments individually. Only Rondine and the early Villi and Edgar lag behind it.

The mixed critical reaction of 1910 told a story that would endure. One New York reviewer was bemused: “The Puccini quality is there, but it is restrained.” Another was more responsive, calling the first act the best Puccini had written: “Apparently a mass of confused and often trivial incident as would seem at first to be almost beyond melodious treatment. Yet Puccini has made a complete and most musical picture of it.”

A third critic voiced a complaint one still hears today from Fanciulla‘s skeptics: “What the public has always wanted, wants now, and always will want in any opera, above all things is melody […] There is surprisingly little of this in The Girl of the Golden West.”

Of course, Fanciulla is—like Verdi’s Falstaff—full of good tunes that bubble up, beguile the ear and disappear, perhaps to recur, perhaps not. If it has anything in common with Verdi’s final masterpiece (which itself will never be a popular hit on the order of Traviata), it is a certain tough-mindedness, an insistence on its own audacious symphonic design.

Aside from Ramerrez’s brief “Ch’ella mi creda,” which is placed with strong theatrical logic (the seemingly doomed bandit’s last words, grudgingly granted), it lacks the concert-ready showpiece arias that had studded Puccini’s scores to that point.  Its other vocal solos do not lift out so gratefully, their shape being dictated by conversational context and mood.

Then there are matters of vocal difficulty. Minnie is considered a perilous soprano role; famous names have come to grief with her. The difficult tenor role and the necessary large assortment of male comprimari contribute to the work’s status as a relative rarity.

The benefit is that familiarity cannot breed contempt. Fanciullas, not being such a matter of routine, are more likely to be special occasions than the latest humdrum tourist-baiting Bohème or Tosca (or even Turandot) revival.

I have heard bad performances of Fanciulla, and this week I must describe a few. But what struck me in revisiting the filmed Fanciullas is that all of the Minnies perform the role as though it means something to them. Some are vocally and histrionically more successful than others, but they all show a personal response. I do not think any of them took her on lightly.

The very qualities that keep Fanciulla low in the popularity rankings may make it the favorite Puccini opera for those who typically find him easy to resist. If it isyour favorite, this majestic California redwood among more common evergreens, you will find company.

Shelved since the twilight of Tebaldi, Fanciulla was back at the Met with a new production in the 1991-92 season, and a spring performance was taped for telecast. Director/designer team Giancarlo del Monaco and Michael Scott conformed to the theater’s prevailing aesthetic of the Reagan/Bush years: traditional, realistic, extravagant.

Scott’s elaborate sets look like those of film/TV Westerns. The one for Act Two has an outdoor area so the lovers can gambol in the falling snow, and later we can see Rance take aim and shoot Ramerrez down.

Unfortunately, Del Monaco’s direction can traffic in cinematic clichés at the expense of logic. Minnie first appears in the midst of a full-scale saloon brawl. The libretto’s antagonism is between two people, Rance and Sonora, but the others start throwing punches, smashing chairs over each other’s heads and crashing through the balcony railing for no reason.

The ghost-town setting for the third act also is a case of Del Monaco and Scott putting a familiar “Western” picture on the stage rather than plausibly visualizing such a camp circa 1849. Would there even be so much of a town built on this site to have turned “ghost?”

But it is possible the duo intended an update of period, as a picture of Abraham Lincoln—a one-term Illinois congressman at the specified time—adorns Minnie’s tavern.

The endings of the first two acts are misjudged. Ramerrez leaves the Polka very slowly so that he can be prominent in the stage picture as his words sink in for Minnie. The curtain comes down not on Minnie alone, reconsidering her worth, but on soprano and tenor gazing at each other across a room.

Far worse follows the card game. Rance says good night and makes an arthritically slow exit (a theme emerges!) so he can be tormented by a celebration that usually begins once he has left. Minnie’s cackling about Ramerrez being hers becomes witchy taunting of a vanquished foe.

Despite the reservations I have front-loaded, this is great fun, one of the best filmed Fanciullas. Barbara Daniels was a beneficiary of the originally planned Éva Marton‘s falling out with the Met. Nothing in Daniels’s Met career (Musetta, Rosalinde, Violetta, Marguerite) pointed toward Minnie, but she took the risk and had a Dorothy Kirsten-style success, with a limber and well-focused lighter voice and a high energy level.

Daniels closely matches the Minnie of Belasco’s detailed description, and her choices differ from those of her immediate predecessors, especially La Scala’s very inward Mara Zampieri. This is a heroine to love—a healthy, direct, high-spirited cowgirl with a smile so radiant that the singer should have been co-credited on lighting.

Plácido Domingo, in his third Ramerrez, cannot match his definitive filmed statement in the London production, but he sounds rejuvenated and responds better to Del Monaco’s direction, and perhaps to these co-stars, than he had to his Scala colleagues. Ramerrez’s justification/apology for the way he has lived his life has an Otello’s mature gravitas this time.

Sherrill Milnes was performing Rance onstage for the first time since student days, in his final new production at the Met. The tone has lost some sap and steadiness, and pitches can be vague, but he carries authority easily and gives a satisfying veteran-divo performance. He and Domingo, at odds in so many operas through the years, have well-worked-out stage enmity.

An affectingly integrated Polka gang (two African Americans, Michael Forest as Joe and Kevin Short as Happy) may be the best on video. They all have a performing zest that matches their Minnie’s, and their singing attests to the Met’s high comprimario standards of the era.

Dwayne Croft is another rising-star Larkens, though overdirected to fling himself to the barroom floor to signify angst. There is a resonant Ashby from redwood-tall Julien Robbins. Vernon Hartman as Castro is a “no small parts” ham for the ages; he really wants that brandy.

This is the only filmed Fanciulla to open an Act One cut of offensive material involving Billy Jackrabbit’s academic shortcomings and fondness for alcohol. The character (here played by Hao Jiang Tian) does not appear until Act Two in standard practice.

Leonard Slatkin‘s leadership does not call attention to itself; rather, it pursues a course of understated accompaniment, and the Met Orchestra’s high-gloss execution is of the first rank.

Having criticized Del Monaco above, I should credit him (and video director Brian Large) for an uncommonly lucid realization of the persuasion scene, in which Minnie appeals to the miners as a group and individually as sentiment turns toward sparing Ramerrez.

Daniels’s playing here is characteristically heartfelt, as is the men’s. Thus, when the aspiration motif (the ascending thirds of Minnie’s “Su, su, su” to Ramerrez in Act One) returns in the voices of the whole male company, it is as joyous a moment as it should be.

I will deal only in passing with an HD-era “remake” of the above. I saw the 2011 live broadcast and found it a pale facsimile of the 1992 telecast in all respects, except for the richly textured and flamboyant account of the score under Nicola Luisotti. With apologies to fans of the singers involved, I chose not to revisit it for this project, as it repeats a production with no new revelations.

Fanciulla had been chosen to reopen the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago on the 25th anniversary of the composer’s death (1949), and a new production played the festival’s open-air venue in summer 2005.

I would like to be able to report that the Italians show how a great work by one of their own should be done, but this is one of the catalog’s weakest entries. The opening scenes are loose, desultory. We wait for the leads to show up and pull it together with their stage savvy. Then the leads show up, and one does not get the impression the aughts were a great period for Italian opera in Italy.

Daniela Dessì is your gal if you want a tough Minnie. Full of diva poses and airs, she does not give out smiles easily, although there is some forced laughter. She produces a gun very naturally. This Minnie seems a bit fed up with it all; there is not much warmth or affection. She wearily disarms Sonora without looking at him, and later is brusque and imperious with the Native Americans.

Dessì’s singing has power and good legato, but as this long and trying part goes on, the widening vibrato and need to slide up to top notes weigh against her more. Her interpretation also does not wear well. There is character in what she does, but not great range of expression.

Fabio Armiliato‘s sound is both smoother and less compelling than his leading lady’s. There is little profile or edge to this Ramerrez; he only seems a pleasant, harmless, rather gawky man. Armiliato sings the famous aria well enough, with what impresses as an essentially lyric instrument.

The tenor and soprano had a long offstage partnership, but no special chemistry enlivens their scenes. They are two pros going through the usual paces.

The Rance, Lucio Gallo, comes off best. His baritone is neither weighty nor lustrous, but he gives a shrewd, well-judged vocal performance and is the most interesting of the leads in reactions. He can make something of moments. He balls up a fist after Minnie reveals her last hand, collects himself, spits the “Buona notte!” and stalks out.

American artist Fred Nall Hollis (whose preferred billing is the unimoniker “Nall”) created the snazzy costumes and the stylized set, a commingling of Western, Asian, Native American and Art Deco influences.

Impressively wrought and colorful though Nall’s set is, it can only be transformed so much to suggest shifts in environment. It works least well in the middle act. Minnie may as well be sleeping at a PF Chang’s.

Dessì is the only soprano on these DVDs to ride to the rescue on horseback. The singer looks uncomfortable as the horse slowly traverses half the stage’s width, and one sees why this is rarely done.

Direction is of the traffic-management variety. Episodes such as the Bible lesson and Ramerrez’s post-shooting return make little impact. It is the sort of performance in which you anticipate things, and then you recall they happened a few minutes ago.

Alberto Veronesi oversees the Orchestra Città Lirica with a light, clear touch and good pacing, and voice/orchestra balance is excellent for an open-air event. This may have been enjoyable to experience once live.

To this point the Fanciullas have been more or less traditional, the grim and unromantic Scala and the stylized Torre del Lago being the “less.” German director Nikolaus Lehnhoff‘s 2009 Netherlands Opera production is, to superficial inspection, the radical Regietheater that is supposed to frighten the horses. Acts are set in, respectively, a modern leather bar, a trailer with a pink interior and light-up religious icons, and an auto salvage yard.

Most of Lehnhoff’s good ideas come early. A white-suited singing cowboy performs Wallace’s ballad against an animated backdrop of a brilliant blue sky and impossibly green hills. The Polka’s disenfranchised urban dwellers react to this kitsch with wistfulness for lost roots, even phony roots.

The Mineshafters’ crushes on their gal pal are played ironically. They all want to “marry” her because she’s fabulous. Only Rance has bona fide heterosexual urges… presumably.

The watering hole’s devout Christian proprietress moves only herself with her Bible teaching. Ashby is taking the opportunity to buy a drink for some young buck. When Minnie finishes her sermon on salvation, her listeners wander off unenlightened.

From about that point forward, Lehnhoff’s inspiration flags, and we are looking at a straightforward Fanciulla decorated unconventionally. Minnie sends the wounded Ramerrez to the roof of her mobile home when Rance comes calling. Right on schedule, the blood somehow drips through the metal shell to betray his location.

Minnie comes to the rescue in the junkyard, and now she is Jean Harlow descending a lighted staircase. A projected MGM lion rises up behind her, roaring away. Well! “Striking,” sure, but frantically lobbing allusions at us is not transforming the material. The fussy touches do not even build from scene to scene to make anything cumulative.

Lehnhoff’s understanding of American “low culture” was secondhand and faintly condescending, but he understood diva worship. Eva-Maria Westbroek gets great entrances and looks smashing in Andrea Schmidt-Futterer‘s costumes. Still in her thirties at the time, she deviates from a trend in being a younger Minnie than our last three. She has Zampieri’s tenderness and introspection, but more vitality and personal glamour.

Westbroek’s is a complex sound that hints at possible rough waters to come: a little tremulous, the highest notes both unstable and too loud relative to those around them. But there is gleam to the tone here, and the voice serves a poignant overall characterization. Monologues have an arresting play of light and shade.

The singer can even clarify one of the production’s ideas: Minnie’s limited success in reaching the men (with a touchingly sung and acted Bible lesson) may partially motivate her melancholia later in the act.

The handsome Serbian Zoran Todorovich, also well costumed,acts a genial and sympathetic Ramerrez. His vocal delivery is monochromatic in a serviceable spinto. Gallo repeats his compact but effective Rance in more stimulating company.

Carlo Rizzi, conducting the Netherlands Philharmonic, demonstrates verismo knowhow, finding a nice perching point between the “powerhouse symphonic display” approachand the “seamless conversational accompaniment” approach.

The three leads work well together, with strong currents in their various combinations. It is a shame such a likable trio’s efforts cannot count for more, as the production, an overload of frosting and rainbow sprinkles concealing a runny half-baked cake, ultimately alienates.

Tomorrow: I reckon this horse’ll get me as far as Stockholm, Vienna and Naples, pardner. There will also be thoughts on transformation, as device and as theme.