> PUCCINI La Fanciulla Basile 8573874882 [IL]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West

Opera in Three Acts
Minnie……Carla Gavazzi
Jack Rance.. Ugo Savarese
Dick Johnson…………. Vasco Campagnano
Nick………Aldo Bertocci
Sonora……Pier Luigi Latinucci
Happy…….Pasquale Lombardo
Wowkle… Jone Farolfi
Orchestra Lirica e Coro di Milano della RAI conducted by Arturo Basile
(Mono recording made in Milan on 23rd November 1950)
WARNER FONIT/CETRA 2CD 8573 87488-2 [119:28]


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Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was premiered in New York in 1910 with Enrico Caruso as the outlaw hero Dick Johnson. In the Puccini canon it lies between Madama Butterfly (premiered in Vienna in1907) and La Rondine premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917). Although its première was successful, it has never reached the popularity of Puccini’s golden trio: Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly. There are no grand show-stopping arias like ‘Che gelida manina’, rather they grow seamlessly and are absorbed into the text so that on a first hearing they can be quite easily missed. In fact Johnson’s main aria, ‘Ch’ella mi creda ...’ does not arrive until nearly the end of the opera and then is developed into the glorious climax that ends the opera with Minnie and Johnson riding off into the sunset – Puccini departing from his norm, and giving a happy ending. Puccini, himself, believed that in order to appreciate La fanciulla del West properly, two or three hearings were necessary. I should hasten to add that the opera contains plenty of melodies, harmonic and instrumental innovations - and plenty of lusty action. In fact, for this opera, Puccini moved on to a more masculine orientated work with the accent on the male voice.

Briefly, the opera is about Dick Johnson, otherwise known as the outlaw Ramerrez who is resolved to steal miners’ gold stored for safe-keeping in the saloon run by Minnie. Johnson is being pursued by Sheriff Jack Rance. Dick falls in love with Minnie and so resists the temptation to steal the gold. However, Rance is doggedly after him and in Act II traces him to Minnie’s cabin. When Rance tells Minnie who Johnson really is and what his intentions are, Minnie throws the outlaw out but later relents and hides him when he is wounded by Rance’s men. A drop of Dick’s blood falling from the attic where he is hiding, gives him away but Minnie, aware that Rance lusts after her, challenges the sheriff to a game of cards and wins Johnson’s freedom. However in Act III, set in the Californian forest, the posse has caught up with Dick and he is about to be lynched when Minnie rides up and appeals to their better nature. Ultimately, she and Dick are allowed to go free.

This Cetra album was the first complete recording of the opera, made in November 1950 and the mono sound is very good for its age. Minnie is sung by the ‘disturbingly beautiful’ (according to the notes and she does look rather stunning from her photograph) Carla Gavazzi. She is dreamily romantic in her first Act aria, ‘Laggiu nel soldad’ – one of the opera’s highlights but she certainly absorbs herself in the role, showing a rare theatrical verve. You just have to hear how much of a virago she sounds when she accuses Johnson of treachery and wins over the malicious Sheriff, a sort of western Scarpia, sung with dark malevolence and oily slyness by Ugo Savarese. Savarese was occasionally less than perfectly clear and a little unsteady in his higher register but always convincing. As Dick Johnson, soft-grained baritone, Vasco Campagnano is dashing, and heroic and sacrificing in his famous last act aria, and ardent in his Act I duet with Minnie. Arturo Basile provides a proficient accompaniment favouring the singers, including a lusty male voice choir. But he does not forsake Puccini’s marvellous dramatic and colourful orchestral effects which undeniably evoke a western setting but also have, at some points, slightly oriental inflections and Spanish/Mexican rhythms especially to denote Ramerrez, alias Johnson, which, I suppose, is permissible considering California’s Hispanic history.

Although the booklet has a helpful synopsis of the opera, the libretto is only given in Italian. This is a pity for it precludes a full appreciation of this less familiar and certainly undervalued work. I hope to review the recommended DG Zubin Mehta recording of the opera in the not too distant future and I will return to this recording as a comparator then.

This historic premiere recording of one of Puccini’s under-valued operas has powerful performances from its three leads: the ravishingly beautiful Carla Gavazzi as the feisty saloon-gal Minnie, Vasco Campagnano as Dick Johnson, her outlaw lover and Ugo Savarese as the Scarpia-like Sheriff Jack Vance. The direction under the baton of Arturo Basile is compelling and colourful.

Ian Lace

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