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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West (1910)
Carla Gavazzi (Minnie), Ugo Savarese (Jack Rance), Vasco Campagnano (Dick Johnson), Aldo Bertocci (Nick), Pier Luigi Latinucci (Sonora), Tommaso Soley (Harry), Pasquale Lombardo (Happy), Jone Farolfi (Wowkle), Dario Caselli (Ashby, Jake Wallace), Giulio Scarinci (Trin, Joe), Giovanni Privitera (Sid, Larkens), Aristide Baracchi (Bello, Billy Buckrabbit, José Castro), Orchestra Lirica e Coro della RAI di Milano/Arturo Basile
Recorded 23rd November 1950, Milan
WARNER FONIT 8573 87488-2 [2 CDs: 53:38+65:50]


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"La Fanciulla del West" has never enjoyed the success of at least four of the operas that preceded it ("Manon Lescaut", "La Bohème", Madama Butterfly" and "Tosca"). This is at the same time both understandable and unfair. All the Puccini fingerprints are present, but the listener who goes to the opera house to hum along with the big tunes may find this piece reluctant to open out into real melody. It often sounds as if it is about to but actually does so only rarely. If this explains its early failure, it can also be argued that its apparent weaknesses are its strengths; it opens out when it needs to but does not do so gratuitously.

Take the scene between Minnie and Johnson which closes the first act. The two are strongly attracted but are not quite ready to admit it. They hedge around, trying to make conversation, and Johnson leaves with no more achieved than a vague invitation to call on Minnie at her cabin and say goodbye to her there. The music is melodious (how could Puccini be otherwise?) but the phrases never expand into a full grown melody; it is as if Debussy’s "Pelléas et Mélisande" is being seen through Italian eyes. Thus the inability of the two characters to admit and express their love is exactly expressed in the music. In the following Act, when the two are united by the snow which prevents Johnson from leaving, they express their love in a glorious lyrical outpouring equal to anything else Puccini wrote and all the stronger for the earlier restraint. In other words, once the listener has accustomed himself to what he is not going to hear, he should easily recognise that Puccini in fact refined and deepened his art in this opera. Those for whom he emotes too easily in his earlier works must prefer "La Fanciulla del West".

All this will be nought, of course, if the performers are unperceptive. In the award-winning Neblett/Domingo/Milnes/Mehta set (1978), based on a Covent Garden production which saw the reinstatement of the opera in the UK repertoire, I have to say that Mehta has got this crucial part all wrong, and the singers seem quite happy to go along with him. He has the First Act encounter move along strongly, not faster than Basile but passionate and surging, Tristan-style. With this backdrop Neblett and Domingo sing their lines strongly and ardently with a sort of generalised emotion which makes nonsense of what they are actually saying. Thus it seems that their love has already been declared, and when they come together in the Second Act one’s likely reaction will be to say, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Messenger, "they’re at it again!"

Gavazzi, Campagnano and Basile, on the other hand, express perfectly in the First Act the uneasy embarrassment of two people who feel an immediate attraction and find themselves alone together earlier than they had bargained for, while they are not yet ready to face the situation. Basile’s halting handling of the orchestral part and the much more detailed response of the singers to the words add several new dimensions to the music. While in the Second Act there is no holding them back and their passionate exchanges are all the more thrilling for not having been anticipated earlier.

There is one school of thought which claims that the various Serafins, Vottos, Basiles and so on who conducted Puccini recordings until Karajan recorded Madama Butterfly in 1955, setting the stage for a host of "original" and "personal" interpretations by the likes of Mehta, Maazel and Sinopoli, were a bunch of talentless hacks and "routiniers" who owed their position to their humble acquiescence towards the star singers. This line is particularly prevalent in Italy and is repeated, albeit not in its most virulent form, in the booklet to this CD.

Another school of thought has it that the Italian maestri of the old school really knew how Puccini goes and that modern reinterpretations have replaced the old naturalness and flexibility of pulse with heinous exaggerations; the loud passages as hard-hitting as possible, the soft passages inaudible, allegros become prestos, andantes become adagios and so on.

In spite of my comments on the love music I cannot really say that the comparison between Basile and Mehta supports either view. Mehta has in any case never been one of the most extreme of "modern" interpreters and in most of the faster music there is very little difference between the two conductors. Mehta’s textures are warm and he gives the singers space, no less than Basile, but it is in slow sections that he has a tendency to dawdle where Basile keeps the pulse going (Mehta’s ten extra minutes are not just a question of opening up some traditional cuts made by Basile), as in Minnie’s Bible lesson scene which becomes sentimental at the end under Mehta, or in Minnie’s crucial exchange with Sonora and the miners in Act 3 (CD 2 end of track 19) culminating in the phrase "Si può ciò che si vuole" ("You can do anything if you have the will"), where Gavazzi and Basile show that the full significance of the moment can be expressed without grinding to a halt.

A preference on the whole for Basile, then, even if much of what Mehta does is fine. Some of his slower tempi may spring from a realisation that Carol Neblett needs careful nurturing if she is to negotiate the higher passages with a rounded tone, something which is no trouble for the sure-fire Gavazzi. While Neblett’s first entry suggests that her high notes may be a problem (not entirely fairly since she manages an opulent tone when she has time to reach them calmly), Gavazzi immediately establishes a character, flinging forth ringing high notes and powerful chest tones in equal measure. Her Act Two solo, "Oh, se sapeste", goes like a bomb while Neblett sounds simply cautious. I have had occasion already to speak of Carla Gavazzi (see reviews of her in "Adriana Lecouvreur", "Don Giovanni" and "Pagliacci") and once again she throws herself wholeheartedly into a vivid portrayal. Though much of what Neblett does is good hers is an embryonic interpretation in comparison.

Placido Domingo is, of course, one of the Great Tenors, and he has adorned a surely unprecedented number of opera sets with his unfailingly glorious tone and naturally musical phrasing. Whether he is always an imaginative interpreter is another question and once our admiration for his impeccable technique and good taste are over it is difficult to think that this is a part he really feels. Vasco Campagnano, now forgotten, was only a middling name even in his day (he also recorded "Manon Lescaut" and "Aroldo" for Cetra). Against Domingo’s "baritonal" tenor, he is the typical Italian tenor after the manner of Gigli, sweet but strong and not given to bawling. He may not have the complete technique of Domingo (there are some uneasy high notes) but he is thoroughly inside the part of Johnson.

Ugo Savarese has been much maligned as the Germont in the Callas Cetra set of "La Traviata", a recording which certainly reflected little credit on anyone except Callas herself. He has a softer-grained, mellower baritone than the more sharply focused Sherrill Milnes. Again the ready communion which Italians of the day had with their national repertoire is obvious.

A major test for the smaller parts comes in the first piece of sustained lyrical writing in the opera, the ensemble piece which develops from Jake Wallace’s song "Che faranno i vecchi miei". With Dario Caselli a touchingly warm-voiced Jake for Basile, and with Francis Egerton unduly caricatural for Mehta, the older set achieves a heartfelt warmth which the newer one does not quite match.

There is, however, the little matter of the 1950 recording, which is narrow and constricted, though reasonably clear and with the voices well caught. I have the Mehta on LP; it is a finely spacious product of the late 1970s and will presumably sound better still on CD. Other performances to be considered are the Tebaldi/Del Monaco/MacNeil/Capuana (Decca 1958), the Nilsson/Gibin/Mongelli/Matacic (EMI 1958) and the Marton/O’Neill/Fondary/Slatkin (RCA 1992). Opera buffs will want this in particular for a further Gavazzi performance (I am afraid this completes her discography to the best of my knowledge) and will surely enjoy Campagnano, Savarese and Basile.

Christopher Howell

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