"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
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.