Redemption for the Met: ‘La Fanciulla del West’ Returns With a Bang!

Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek) makes a slam-bang entrance in Act I of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Movie Music for the Times

The Metropolitan Opera transmitted Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West over the airwaves via a Live in HD telecast on October 27, 2018, and the regular Saturday radio broadcast (taped) on December 22. Based on Broadway playwright, impresario, and self-promoting producer David Belasco’s most successful stage play The Girl of the Golden West, La Fanciulla del West contains some of the composer’s most bizarre and perplexing music and situations, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments in the theater.

According to Mosco Carner, in his critical study of Puccini, the renowned musician from Lucca had grown tired of the “world of frail heroines and fragile things,” of tragic young women who manage to die of one thing or another at the end of his works. He wanted something bold, new, and dramatic that would help to conquer the “lucrative American market.” Egged on by his close friend and Muse, the Englishwoman Sybil Seligman, Puccini looked to Belasco for inspiration. As he had done with La Bohème by sullying his hands with the sadism of Sardou’s La Tosca, Puccini turned away from Madama Butterfly’s Japanese setting (another Belasco influence) to feast his Tuscan eyes on the American West.

The Girl, as the composer referred to his seventh stage work, takes place in the mountain camps of Northern California during the brash Gold Rush days, i.e., of “miners, forty-niners.” The opera closely follows the play in structure and contrivance. Belasco helped to direct the piece for its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 10, 1910. There’s an amusing caricature by tenor Enrico Caruso of the first staging rehearsal (dated November 1910) where he captures Belasco in his trademark black frock coat and priestly white collar (he was mocked as the “Bishop of Broadway”), along with the beetle-browed Toscanini (at center, with arms raised), and a portly Puccini (at far right).

Caricature by Enrico Caruso of “La Fanciulla del West” stage rehearsals, dated November 1910 (Alamy Stock Photo)

As clever as this was, the drawing pretty much summed up the whole affair, in that La Fanciulla was a spectacular success on its opening night. Thereafter, enthusiasm cooled for the piece as the world engaged in all-out war. Who cared about prospectors panning for gold when more important issues were at stake (survival, for one)? Nostalgia for the past was replaced by concerns for the present and the future.

Interestingly, Puccini may have foreseen what would eventually draw listeners back to The Girl: a longing for home and hearth, for Mom’s apple pie, and for the warmth and compassion of a (so-called) “good woman” and a correspondingly “good man.” These themes, and other related ideas — especially the notion of redemption for one’s transgressions (and Puccini had many that needed redeeming) — recur throughout Fanciulla. According to Minnie, the opera’s gun-toting female protagonist, “There’s not a sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.”

Most notable of all was the musical language Puccini employed to carry out the subtleties of this newly worked-out theme. He had first experimented with the whole-tone scale in La Bohème (for example, the interlude that begins Act III), and afterwards in Madama Butterfly where the pentatonic (or “five-note”) scale was introduced, in addition to several Japanese folk themes. Both scales took center stage in Fanciulla, and right from the opening bars. One could write entire treatises on that musical motif alone! I prefer to let more learned authorities lead the way on that one.

Poster art for “La Fanciulla del West” by Giovanni Palanti, ca. 1910

For me, I love to wax poetic on the subject of Puccini’s instinctive ability to delineate story, plot, and character through his novel use of the orchestra; how he was able to draw such vibrant portraits and pertinent commentary on the action through seemingly effortless means — what in the nascent film industry would become known as “Mickey-Mousing.” Throughout the years, I’ve learned that Puccini not only had an all-consuming passion for the theater, but also a sense of music’s cinematic potential. This is not a new theory, but purely an observation, on my part, that lends credence to the thought that Puccini was cognizant of the simultaneous growth of silent cinema around the time he wrote his most famous works. Did he pay much attention to silent movies? We’re not at all sure.

Still, I happen to take issue with William Berger’s declaration, published in Puccini without Excuses (Vintage Books, 2005), that the composer “never developed, or pretended to develop, an interest in cinema” — this despite the fact that Pietro Mascagni and Ildebrando Pizzetti, along with other contemporary composers, wrote dozens of scores for early silent features. Even that bellicose poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio got “paid a fortune merely writing the screen titles in the epic of ancient Rome, Cabiria, in 1914” (p. 68).

All this is fine, as far as it goes — and, to quote an Old Italian adage, Si non è vero, è ben trovato (“If it isn’t true, it’s well founded”). But the point remains that in our modern era Puccini’s scores have been serving as movie soundtracks for decades on end. Despite the fact he never wrote music directly for the movies, his scores have a way of indirectly “mimicking” a film’s soundtrack, especially in his operas’ onstage and offstage occurrences.

Listen, for example, to the opening section of Tosca, how the music follows along with the escaped prisoner Angelotti in his frantic search for the key to his family chapel: “A piè della Madonna mi scrisse mia sorella” – “At the foot of the Madonna so wrote my sister.” That’s where Angelotti finds his precious key, but not before the music leads the character to rummage through the church for several nail-biting minutes. Moments later, the irascible Sacristan saunters in. What a delightful, bouncy little tune he has! You can almost picture in your mind the fellow bumbling and grumbling about his business.

Moving on to La Fanciulla, the underscoring is masterfully interwoven into the dialogue in order to capture a “Wild West” ambience — that is, something out of The Great Train Robbery from 1903. To illustrate this point, maestro Stephen Mercurio, in the December 2010 issue of OPERA NEWS (via his article “How the West Was Won”), describes the thirty-five bar prelude as making “a short, loud curtain-raiser, with a cinematic sound that would ultimately serve as a model and inspiration for film composers” (p. 36).

Mercurio went on to expand upon his assertion: “As a conductor, I’m always amazed by the extent to which [Puccini] would challenge the audience’s ear, rendering the offstage action a musical equal to the onstage action … One unique example: immediately after the curtain goes up, a silent-movie-like scene is played out onstage, as Nick the bartender, Jack Rance the sheriff and Larkens, the despondent miner on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appear to reflect their individual psychological states. The only voices heard are the boys’ shouts from a distance, signaling the end of the miners’ workday, and the foreshadowing of Jake Wallace’s melancholy minstrel song, sung by a baritone offstage.

“All of this happens before even one note is sung onstage. It was an audacious move for Puccini to open this opera in such a manner, forcing the audience, and the orchestral players as well, to expand their ears beyond the pit … The entire offstage drama, almost a parallel opera, representing the life of the posse, is played out by Puccini in each of the three acts. They supply a continuous action heard offstage.”

Step up to the bar: Opening scene of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Met Opera)

In the concluding section, Mercurio summarizes his findings as to Puccini’s methodology for expressing the inherent theatricality of his works: “I am constantly reminded of how his highly developed dramatic sensibilities would anticipate, on an orchestral level, what was to become a common technique for the best film composers — underscoring to heighten the audience’s anxiety level for dramatic effect…

“From the downbeat and the cinematically evocative bars of the prelude to the final fading off into the sunset, La Fanciulla del West was conceived to capture the imagination of American audiences. By bringing Belasco’s highly successful play to the opera stage, Fanciulla entered into what Puccini believed to be the American psyche — bigger than life, dramatic, colorful and ultimately life-affirming. With La Fanciulla del West, Puccini gave us the ‘new world,’ symbolizing optimism, hope and freedom for all — and, in essence, what may well be considered the first great American opera” (p. 39).

La Fanciulla’s Minnie as Calamity Jane? How about Annie Oakley? Hmm…. I don’t know about “the first great American opera” label, but I do know this: it’s definitely, as author Christopher Frayling termed it in Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, “the first Italian ‘Western.’ ” Pass the spaghetti sauce, please!

‘Go West, Young Man (And Woman)’

The only Fanciulla production I am aware of that took the silent-film aesthetic fully to heart, and presented Puccini’s “horse” opera in a debatable facsimile of that form, is German stage director Christof Loy’s 2012 production for the Royal Swedish Opera House. Designed by Herbert Murauer (the single-unit set is mostly a corrugated “wall”) and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi, the cast features Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Minnie (our titular “Girl”), Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dick Johnson (aka the bandit Ramerrez), Swedish baritone John Lundgren as Sheriff Jack Rance, and bass Michael Schmidberger as Wells Fargo agent Ashby.

Two of the more striking visual components of this version (available to viewers on a Unitel Classica DVD/Blu-ray Disc) are the introductory pre-curtain feature, shown on a screen before the curtain proper; and the entrance of the “blind” minstrel Jake Wallace (sung by baritone John Erik Eleby).

Cover of Unitel-Classica’s release of “La Fanciulla del West” – Production by Christof Loy, 2012, Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm

The pre-curtain feature, as outlined in the accompanying booklet (with notes by Ruprecht Langer), is in “the style of a 1950s black-and-white Western. Minnie rides through a Wild West landscape. [No sooner] has she jumped off her horse [when] she begins running towards the audience and, at the last moment, literally [bursts] out of the screen, revolvers drawn — eliciting her first applause without having sung a single note.” A “yippee-ki-yay” flourish if there ever was one! But what do you do for an encore? It’s hard to top those first few minutes, and indeed nothing else in the staging quite approaches that opening thrill ride.

Another instant, one that probably looked better on paper than in actual practice, was the brief interlude with Jake Wallace, here made up to look like the rumpled Little Tramp from The Gold Rush (written, directed, and produced by Charlie Chaplin himself in 1925, fifteen years after La Fanciulla’s debut). Forgetting the Gold Rush analogy for the moment, singer John Erik Eleby’s pained expression betrayed noticeable discomfort. The character basically stands around not knowing what to do. This sequence fell flatter than Chaplin’s worn shoes.

Continuing with Langer’s notes, “Film elements pervade the entire opera. In each of the three acts, screens several [meters] high show cleverly selected close-ups of the actors’ big moments in Hollywood-style projected images.” Too, this element proved more distracting than enlightening: it was more a question of where audience members needed to focus their gaze, either on the singers themselves or their larger-than-life screen counterparts. It generated more frustration than illumination, a good idea improperly thought out, and illustrative of what people meant when they refer to bad Regietheater.

As for the casting, the popular Ms. Stemme, who has triumphed in such roles as Strauss’ Elektra, Wagner’s Brünnhilde, and Puccini’s Turandot, while tough as nails as the barkeep Minnie, lacked vulnerability. She seemed tougher than boot leather, when compared to the pudgy out-of-sorts Antonenko. Vocally, Antonenko reminded me of the late Hungarian tenor Sándor Kónya, a memorable Lohengrin at the Met, and an affable Dick Johnson in the 1970 radio broadcast of Fanciulla. Aleksandrs, too, lacked a certain suavity and charm, both necessary components if we are to believe this farfetched couple’s relationship.

CD cover of Renata Tebaldi as Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”

By the way, that now-legendary 1970 radio broadcast boasted one of a handful of Met Opera appearances by the late Renata Tebaldi as Minnie. I recorded that performance on open-reel tape and remember it fondly, mostly for Tebaldi’s feminine guile and sweetness, despite blustery and harshly sung, off-pitch high notes. The role unfortunately occurred late in her career when anything above the staff became painful to listen to. Her mustache-twirling antagonist, sung by the underrated Anselmo Colzani (subbing for an indisposed Cornell MacNeil), snarled and rasped to our delight.

Their second act duet, almost a re-creation of the Tosca-Scarpia encounter, but with the villain left standing at the end, raised the Met rafters to new heights with Tebaldi’s delivery of that classic rip-roaring line, “Tre assi e un paio!” (“Three aces and a pair”), in their high-stakes poker game. The audience was still cheering many minutes after the curtain had fallen. Wow, talk about goose bumps!

One live production I rather enjoyed, although it was staged on a proportionately smaller scale than the Met’s, was from 1977 at the New York City Opera, courtesy of director Frank Corsaro. Even with a reduced orchestra, conductor Sergiu Comissiona coaxed some sonorous nuances from a cast headed by Maralin Niska (over-parted but acceptable) as Minnie, Ermanno Mauro (very Del Monaco-esque, as was his wont) as Johnson, and Charles Long (substituted in Acts II and III by the full-throated Vern Shinall) as Rance.

How the Met Was Won

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the “Girl of the Golden West” (Photo: Met Opera)

No such goose bumps proliferated in the Saturday matinee re-broadcast of Fanciulla, but the full cast does merit attention: Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Johnson/Ramerrez, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rance, bass Oren Gradus as Jake Wallace, and tenors Scott Scully and Carlo Bosi as Joe and Nick, respectively; with bass Richard Bernstein as Bello, tenor Alok Kumar as Harry, bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Happy, bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Sid, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Sonora, tenor Eduardo Valdes as Trin, baritone Adrian Timpau as Larkens, bass Matthew Rose as Ashby, tenor Ian Koziara as the Post Rider, baritone Kidon Choi as José Castro, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick as Wowkle, and bass Philip Cokorinos as Billy Jackrabbit. Marco Armiliato (whose brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared at the Met and elsewhere) presided over the orchestra and, if truth be told, conducted the work from memory. Praise be, Toscanini lives!

The production, a grandiose affair, owes much to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and is credited to Giancarlo Del Monaco, the famed tenor’s son, with period sets and costumes (atmospheric but hardly of the times, so I’ve read) by Michael Scott, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and revival stage direction by Gregory Keller. The men’s chorus, an important ingredient in this piece, was prepared by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

The story, in a nutshell, concerns the literal taming of the West — in this instance, involving three of the opera’s characters: Minnie, Johnson/Ramerrez, and Rance. The fourth character, the miners and would-be gold prospectors, functions as a Greek chorus. Their redemption, along with those of the main figures above, takes up the opera’s running time.

Minnie is a free spirit, but a faintly religious one. She’s not the Bible-thumping, pistol-packing Mama depicted in tiresomely lazy reporting by most critics and reviewers. William Berger has stressed that fact: she’s a rugged individualist, the lone female out to tame those unruly frontiersmen (code word for the wilderness). She wants to meet a man who can tame her as well, but strictly on her terms. Johnson, whose real name is Ramerrez (a Mexican bandit by inheritance), happens to be that man — or so he thinks. His task is to convince Minnie of that, only she’s not so easily convinced. Then, there’s Sheriff Rance. He’s not such a bad sort, but more of a disgruntled loner. True, he’s the law in these parts, and every two-bit mining town needs a lawman. He has a wife, but longs to run away with Minnie. Who wouldn’t? It’s lonely in them thar California hills — and Minnie’s quite the catch!

Filling her boots is Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has teamed with Kaufmann on prior occasions as Sieglinde to his Siegmund in Die Walküre, as part of the Met’s current Ring-cycle production. She’s also appeared in the Francesca da Rimini revival a few seasons back, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and as Katerina Izmailova in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not a lirica-spinta by any stretch of the imagination, Westbroek met the challenges and obstacles of Minnie’s part head-on. If she appeared to be steam-rolling over some of the role’s treacherous tessitura (and let’s face it, not for nothing is Minnie known as the Italian Brünnhilde), she managed to create a sympathetic portrayal nonetheless. She did manage to make it through her second-act poker match (with squalls intact), but ran afoul of the orchestra which blasted away to mesmerizing effect.

A “Meet Cute”: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Wayward high notes aside, Westbroek made for a perfect match-up with her frequent stage partner Herr Kaufmann, returning to the Met after an absence of four seasons. Man, was he missed! But after hearing him as Dick Johnson, made famous by the great Caruso, as well as other artists from the past (Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, and the like), I wished he’d cut down on the crooning.

Kaufmann’s voice has turned darker with the intervening years, and was not as penetrating or as viscerally enticing as when we last heard him, both as Wagner’s Parsifal and as a peerless Werther in the Massenet opus. His soft-singing was soothing, though, especially in the long duet with Minnie that closes Act I. He was forthright and heroic where he needed to be in Act II, and his “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III, the only number in the opera that can be classified as an “aria” (or, as the late Met spokesperson Francis Robinson used to pronounce it, “aah-ria”), was meltingly enunciated, if a might too careful and mannered: he sounds more and more like Jon Vickers every time I hear him. Fans of the tenor were in good voice (and in ample supply) at curtain time.

Making his role debut as the bad-ass sheriff, Željko Lučić allowed his strongly sinuous and muscular baritone to ring out resoundingly. Here was a lawman to be reckoned with! His experience with that other Puccini policeman, Scarpia, showed in Lučić’s onstage carriage and vigorous vocal allure. Still, Rance is not the main focus of the plot, only an incidental (and diversionary) one at that. He’s left standing apart from the others at the close, which is not what Puccini or Belasco had intended.

Last Man Standing: Željko Lučić as Jack Rance in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Overall, there was no faulting Lučić’s confident grounding of his role in the key Act II match-up with Minnie. There was excitement a-plenty here, even if it failed to erase memories of the Tebaldi-Colzani encounter, or any of the recorded ones featuring Tebaldi with MacNeil (on Decca/London), Carol Neblett with Sherrill Milnes (DG), or the available YouTube excerpts, starring the rarely heard Gigliola Frazzoni, with Corelli and Gobbi. American lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten was a natural for the part of Minnie, especially when she was paired up with Brooklyn-born Richard Tucker (wearing Caruso’s jacket from the original Belasco production!).

A one-of-a-kind dream cast with verismo specialist Magda Olivero, along with the giant-voiced Gian Giacomo Guelfi (a personal friend of Corelli’s), is another YouTube find and highly recommended. Even more impressive is the young Italian tenor in the part of Johnson: Daniele Barioni. Proving he was a lot more than a dime-store Del Monaco, Barioni delivers the goods in spades with an outstanding interpretation, both vocally and histrionically, of the bandit-turned-lover. Barioni’s only available commercial recording is the first stereo rendition of Puccini’s La Rondine for RCA Victor, with Anna Moffo, Piero De Palma, Graziella Sciutti, and Mario Sereni, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Redemption finally comes to our heroine and her bandit boyfriend. Minnie saves Johnson from the hangman’s noose and convinces the miners to set him free — with Minnie as his redeemer. Together, they leave the mining town behind to go off into the sunset, while the men commiserate over their loss with a repeat of Jake Wallace’s wistful ballad, “Che faranno i vecchi miei, là, lontano?” (“What will the old folks do, so far away?”). Berger insists it’s an old Zuni Indian tune, while Carner maintains its close relationship to Stephen Foster’s “The Old Dog Tray.” (Note to readers: After listening to an excerpt of “Old Dog Tray” online, I am convinced that Puccini’s reworking is not even close to Foster’s theme, but an original creation.)

The community is transformed, now and forever, by the miners’ solidarity and their association with The Girl. The lovers’ fading voices in the distance are all that’s left of their memories: “Addio, mia California! Addio!” The opera began with the word “Hello!” and ends, deliberately and nostalgically, with “Goodbye!” “But whatever bright future they may have in front of them,” Berger’s thoughts tell us, “there is a unique sadness to the finale of Fanciulla, despite the lack of a ‘body count’ and the theoretically happy ending.”

You have my permission to wipe away the tears with Puccini’s score in hand.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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