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Golden ‘Girls’ season finale

The conclusion of our Fanciulla del West video overview in three parts looks at a trio of performances from the 2010s. 

If Nikolaus Lehnhoff‘s splashy camp treatment (covered yesterday) was the Johnny Guitar of Fanciullas, the younger German Christof Loy‘s is the McCabe & Mrs. Miller: muted, wintry, ascetic, concerned as much with challenging how the West is mythologized as with the West itself.

What precisely “Regietheater” is, or should be, is too ambitious a topic to take on under this heading, but Loy’s 2012 Royal Swedish Opera Fanciulla is the kind of strongly directed maverick view that makes three-quarters of the productions that open, of any directorial inclination, seem lazy and false.

Designer Herbert Murauer‘s Polka is plain and cramped, with a look of natural lighting. The feel is not so intimate. These miners are not close friends. Their camaraderie is effectively offhand, and everyone is preoccupied or tired. Weariness and futility, and how people bear up under such conditions, are well caught.

Loy has given fresh consideration to familiar situations. Maybe that is half a definition of Regietheater in itself. The young Sonora (Ola Eliasson, prominent in outer acts, extremely good) insults and provokes Rance, and as the argument progresses, Sonora is clearly frightened. He knows he has got in over his head and that death is a real possibility, but everyone is watching and he cannot back down.

The Bible lesson is attended only by Minnie’s six most devoted boys, half of whom have lines in the scene. Minnie’s voice seems to warm the room. The penitent Sonora places his red ribbon, a gift previously overlooked, in Minnie’s Bible.

When, in the final act, Sonora stands up to the mob for Ramerrez’s right to speak, Loy and Eliasson make clear that this principled stand is a struggle for Sonora. When he passes this test of courage and wins a victory for decency, it is a moving moment. Who expects to be moved by Sonora, or even to see choices made about him between his lines?

In Act One’s long Minnie/Ramerrez scene, one passage stands out for vocal vehemence, when Minnie describes the miners’ hardships and tells “Johnson” that anyone who would steal their gold will do so over her dead body. Loy considers (and has his soprano portray) that Minnie in this moment may suspect the charming stranger of being the bandit.

Why would she not suspect this, consciously or subconsciously? But then she chases the thought from her mind. The unusual choice is well supported by music and words.

Loy directs a sad, dignified staging of the troublesome Wowkle/Billy scene. The couple stands under a crucifix as they sing about praising the Christian God in church. They are being separated from their roots, their identity.

Minnie’s card-hiding subterfuge is believably staged. Rance produces a pocket watch during “Ch’ella mi creda”; he does not want Ramerrez getting a second too much borrowed time. The miners’ reactions during that aria tell many stories.

The production is not perfect. Costumes and coifs evoke early days of cinema, and the idea is carried too far with occasional black-and-white wall projections that duplicate what we are seeing onstage. Every moment of imperfect sync with the live singing registers, and the projections are tiresome rather than illuminating. The third act, unimaginatively set with a retread of the Polka, takes time to get off the ground.

But in thinking through a community and how the people of it would feel and react, Loy has found more in Fanciullathan most directors look for.

Nina Stemme is older than most of her Polka boys, a maternal presence concealing loneliness. Her middle voice, where most of the role lives, is warm with womanly allure; episodes are shaped with discernment and taste. “Laggiù nel Soledad” throbs with fantasy, a dream gaining new clarity in the recounting.

Loy has Stemme onstage nearly every moment, even (controversially) before Minnie’s scripted entrances in outer acts, and Stemme’s very grown-up performance has strong emotional commitment. Only a lack of freedom on top counts against her, with tight, edgy extremes.

John Lundgren‘s Rance, a hulking bully, makes a promising impression and holds the stage against Stemme’s mature artistry. The mostly young Scandinavian comprimari team effectively and are well directed. Standouts are Niklas Björling Rygert‘s nearly spectral Nick and Michael Schmidberger‘s dashing Ashby, an object of apparent jealousy and derision.

The obstacle to greatness is Aleksandrs Antonenko‘s Ramerrez. Antonenko appears to make a sincere effort, but his woodenness as an actor stands out more than it may have in a typical Fanciulla.

Were he able to charm and create a character through stylish Italianate singing, he may have gotten by, but this is a blunt performance with square phrasing and incipient pitch problems. When there is no flair or magnetism to Ramerrez, the opera’s plot turns on something the viewer has a hard time believing.

Conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi draws praiseworthy playing from the Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra in a restrained, intimate reading with sensitivity to singers.

Stemme brings identical strengths and the same chink in her armor to her second attempt, a 2014 Vienna State Opera production. This time she has worse styling, a stricter conductor, and a stage director less detailed in handling of the ensemble.

I am tempted to say the comprimari are also weaker, but that may be unfair. They are not asked to do more than mill about and deliver lines.  One exception, the Minnie/Sonora reconciliation after the Bible lesson, is so close to Stockholm’s staging that I wonder if Stemme suggested it.

What makes “Stemme II” more than a superfluous release is the ideal partner the soprano lacked before. Jonas Kaufmann is one of the great Ramerrezes, the best on DVD since Plácido Domingo‘s first.

Kaufmann sings with considerable tonal beauty and suavity, apparent ease and obvious care. His well-tailored Ramerrez carries himself with something that could be vanity, but this is leavened by humor, gentlemanly tact and close rapport with Stemme.

In scenes for Minnie and Ramerrez, the production touches greatness. The highest praise due director Marco Arturo Marelli is that he gives two gifted interpreters space to exercise their fine instincts. (In an interview that shortly followed, Stemme commented that Kaufmann was “a very subtle singer,” while Antonenko had been “very straightforward.”)

I found less to respond to in their antagonist. Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny plays a slimy, Alberich-like Rance with bumpy legato and an array of stagy smirks and grimaces. Marelli makes the sheriff a nastier figure than usual and then tries to make us pity him, ending with Rance gesturing toward suicide by revolver. Giancarlo del Monaco had done this more ambiguously at the Met more than 20 years earlier.

Marelli updates to a mining operation of some more recent era of hardhats and earth-moving equipment. There are harmless eccentricities: Jake Wallace as a voice heard on the radio, with the signal coming in and out; the bar as a mobile concession stand; an unusual method of transportation to carry the lovers off in cinematic fantasy.

With Franz Welser-Möst conducting, we are back to a high-powered “symphonic” Fanciulla, with better continuity than Lorin Maazel‘s. The Viennese players bring virtuoso sheen and finish to the assignment, and Welser-Möst emphasizes the Wagnerian influence, voicing Puccini’s motifs clearly. The bloodthirsty celebration as the men anticipate Ramerrez’s capture and hanging gets a thunderously powerful reading.

A new Fanciulla from veteran director/designer Hugo de Ana opened Teatro San Carlo’s season in December 2017. The Naples house had not staged this opera in more than 40 years.

De Ana’s essentially conventional production combines Loy’s early-cinema-era setting (film posters from the D. W. Griffith period are visible) with Del Monaco’s crowd-pleasing ostentation.

The Met production’s illogical mêlée prior to Minnie’s first entrance is duplicated. Del Monaco’s Polka had Lincoln’s picture on display; De Ana’s has Theodore Roosevelt’s. De Ana supplements Minnie’s audience for the Bible lesson with cute little kids (in a saloon?).

Jake Wallace is a blind traveling performer whose moment of hesitation in the ballad is staged with a stumble. When the miners join his song, the ensemble has realistic uncertainty at first, a quality of coming into focus.

Possessing a strong, saturnine presence and an ample dark baritone with a touch of gravel, Claudio Sgura at least equals 1982 London’s Silvano Carroli as best of the Rances.

This is a Scarpian Rance—coldly menacing, ever watchful. When Rance says that his offstage wife will be no impediment if Minnie will have him, one suspects poor Mrs. Rance may abruptly “visit relatives” without telling anyone, around the same time there is freshly turned earth in the Rances’ yard.

Sgura effectively delineates the two sides of this frontier lawman: the sharp-witted professional pursuing his quarry (Sgura is very good gathering intelligence in the early scene with Ashby) and the savage in matters personal.

The cabin scene has an even more violent attempted rape than the one in 2014 Vienna. Minnie needs two weapons to fend off a determined attacker with a considerable height advantage.

De Ana is another director at pains to leave us sympathetic to the triangle’s loser, but he is less melodramatic than Del Monaco or Marelli. As the lovers bid farewell to California, Rance removes and stares at his badge, wondering if the path he has chosen means anything.

Puccini referred to Minnie as his “valkyrie,” and American Wagner/Strauss specialist Emily Magee may have pleased him with her handling of the part’s stentorian obligations. She is fearless in exactly the parts some filmed predecessors had to approach carefully.

“Oh, se qualcuno vuol quell’oro” has real dramatic strength, and the demented card-tossing celebration comes out in torrents of powerful sound. The top of the voice has breadth and refulgence.

But Minnie is not always stentorian, and Magee, though experienced in the role, serves the rest of it less well this time. When the specified dynamic is softer, the tone coarsens and the singing is inappropriately forceful.

A stiff, deliberate quality invades midrange conversational phrasing. Occasionally Magee fusses over key words with the preciosity of a vocally super-sized Fleming, but she does not relax into musical lines. She cannot fine down the voice to get nimbly around “Oh, se sapeste.”

Her dutiful acting creates the outline of a Minnie, with one good “#MeToo” touch: the initial approach to Rance suggests a woman who dreads her regular interactions with this man, but knows there is nothing to be done. Rance then is overly intimate from the start, and Minnie must wrench her hands free from his grasp.

Roberto Aronica comments in an introduction that it is hard to think of Ramerrez without thinking of the many great tenors who have sung him. His reedy, provincial performance did not make me think of any of them.

We end much as we began in 1963 Tokyo, with a tenor who fills the role, plays the scenes, makes it possible for the opera to happen. Subtleties of the Minnie/Ramerrez dialogues, so lovingly realized by the Stemme/Kaufmann duo and others, are skirted. The portrayal is featureless.

Besides Sgura’s Rance, the major reason to consider this newest Fanciulla is the playing under young Slovak maestro Juraj Valcuha. Puccini’s score emerges with finesse, pungency and exquisite detail. The closing pages achieve a haunting blurred-pastel beauty that lets me conclude on a high note.

In similar overviews of ElektraTristan und Isolde, Rusalka and Rosenkavalier, I could give the highest recommendation to two or more performances. Every gambler’s lucky streak ends eventually—there are big problems with even the best filmed Fanciullas. High cards are scattered about, but never enough in one place to claim the jackpot.

The 1992 Met, one of that theater’s very good pre-HD telecasts, is the most enjoyable treatment along traditional lines, despite miscalculations on its stage director’s part. The postmillennial pick is 2012 Stockholm, a bold and compelling vision that survives the lead tenor’s limitations.  The 1982 London and 2014 Vienna, in that order, are runners-up.

Several others have valuable performances bundled with much that begs forgiveness. Only you can decide how much forgiveness is in your heart.


An epilogue: Last year, a friend first encountered Fanciulla through the apparently undistinguished production of an East Coast company, and he came away unimpressed. Recently he asked a Facebook group, on which some were excited about the upcoming Met revival, “Why do people especially like this opera?”

Here, I can consider that question at length.

The Puccini of 1910 was at the height of his powers, and created an eclectic score with a wide palette of orchestral colors. We hear the snow falling, the wind rushing, the blood dripping, the heroine’s anxious heartbeat. Act Three’s opening rumbles, evoking the forest, call to mind Siegfried and Fafner. There is new harmonic freedom, with a clear debt to the period’s French innovators.

Puccini was able to build on the advances of Butterfly in his characterization through music, far beyond that evident in the earlier hits. Listen to Rance’s “Minnie, dalla casa” followed by Minnie’s “Laggiù nel Soledad,” and you know these two would be all wrong together.

Their music is nothing alike, and it is not just a matter of Rance being a baritone and Minnie a soprano. “Poesia!” Rance sneers at Minnie’s response, after he has delivered as musically plainspoken and phlegmatic a solo as Puccini ever wrote for any voice type. But Rance is right. Minnie is poetry. So is Ramerrez. Rance is prose.

I love the originality of the opera’s construction, the first act’s ordinary night only gradually becoming something more as we sort out trivial information from crucial. Puccini would return to this method in the short operas of Il trittico.

The second act’s lightly accompanied parlando card game is a masterstroke, one of opera’s most suspenseful scenes. In a great performance, its grip and tension are maintained even though we know the outcome.

I also love the opera’s intricacy, its secrets. I had heard the score many times before I realized that Rance’s “È l’amante” in the second act (his revelation of the Nina/Ramerrez sexual relationship) is a fleeting four-note callback to Minnie’s excited pre-date primping. The words wound the heroine; the music twists the knife.

The piece’s setting is a fascinating time and place for me, and so I have no condescension about it. I do not even think about “spaghetti Westerns” when I see Fanciulla. I think about people from all corners making arduous journeys to a beautiful, untamed land to seek better lives for themselves. There were no guarantees, no safety nets. Many of them, indeed, would not see loved ones again.

To David Belasco, born in 1853 in San Francisco, westward expansion and the Gold Rush were not distant history. As the epigraph to his novelization of his play puts it: “Their very names were soon lost and unrecorded […] Of one thing only are we sure—they lived!”

Fanciulla is an opera of transformations. Rance, the static character, gets left behind. Minnie discovers things in herself she may not have believed were there. Ramerrez must renounce his way of life (also his father’s) to be worthy of her. The miners, who adore Minnie and believe they need her, also must change.

Minnie implores them to find forgiveness for Ramerrez, but what they really must find is selflessness. They must put a friend’s happiness above theirs, and they have so little happiness to spare.

Transformation is all over the music. We could consider many themes and the cunning ways Puccini refashions them over the opera’s three acts. Some are introduced in the short prelude. Certainly, there is a whole essay in the proto-cinematic development of the lilting Minnie/Ramerrez dance tune.

But I will restrict myself to Jake Wallace’s song of homesickness, which pushes unhappy Larkens over the edge. This tune is introduced early and returns again and again. A bright, almost unrecognizable variant darts through the mail scene. Fragments surface twice in Minnie’s final appeal. The last reprise is in the voices of the miners as the lovers depart—a happy ending made a bittersweet one.

Or is it that simple? The tune is also there in an uplifting moment, when the tough guys of the Polka take up their collection to send Larkens home. The first time we see Fanciulla, perhaps this is not the response we expect Larkens to get in a saloon full of 19th-century ruffians as he weeps for his mother and for the home he left behind.

Was Puccini only reemphasizing, loudly, that Larkens is homesick? I do not think so. There is something triumphant, something grand in the way the orchestra blasts the tune out in this iteration.

Before Minnie has even appeared, we are seeing that these Americans, for all their vices, prejudices and uncouth ways, are capable of understanding, compassion, grace. They can look out for one another, do what is right, sacrifice. They can be “fratelli,” as Ramerrez will call them by the end, not just “ragazzi.”

Perhaps this melody stands not only for sadness and hard times but for what makes them bearable, what gets us through them. It also steals in gently in what may be, for me, the most beautiful passage in the opera: the postlude to the Bible lesson. And the words it punctuates in that iteration are “una suprema verità d’amore.”

“The supreme truth of love.”