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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West (‘The Girl of the Golden West’) (1908-1910)
(Opera in three acts)
Minnie…Carol Neblett
Dick Johnson (alias Ramirez the bandit)…Placido Domingo
Jack Rance…Silvano Carroli
Ashby…Robert Lloyd
Jack Wallace…Gwynne Howell
The Royal Opera Chorus and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Nello Santi
Recorded in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London in 1983
NVC ARTS/WARNER 50466-8356-2-8 [140 mins]

When NVC Arts first released The Girl of the Golden West on videocassette there were no subtitles. This made it very difficult to follow the intricacies (especially of Act I) of Puccini’s, later, less popular opera. Now in its new DVD format with enhanced pictures and sound, and subtitles, this acclaimed 1983 Royal Opera House production really comes to life. But I still have a gripe. Although this DVD release comes with subtitles there is a woeful lack of documentation, only a track listing and a skimpy synopsis; there’s not even a cast list!

After the successes of La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, Puccini strengthened his resolve to make La fanciulla del West a different kind of opera from which all elements of sweetness would be ruthlessly expunged. It would also, unusually for Puccini, have its main protagonists, Dick Johnson (Ramirez) and Minnie leave the stage alive at the end. No heroine as victim this time; for Minnie knows exactly how to control and manipulate the men around her. She, and no other female, dominates this opera (all other female roles are minor and either off-stage or well into the background).

Although the melodies in The Girl of the Golden West are not so immediately appealing (no interruptions for applause are heard in this performance), nevertheless the opera has plenty of harmonic and instrumental innovations and plenty of action to sustain interest. Puccini himself recommended two or three hearings to get to know La fanciulla del West properly. Ravel perceptively recognised that here was a work in which Puccini had put the orchestra in the role of the protagonist; and one might note that the sound-world of Debussy rather than Richard Strauss is sometimes evoked in this opera.

Visually this Royal Opera House production is most pleasing: conventional sets, easily recognisable from countless western films. Minnie’s saloon bar spaciously appointed adds just the right atmosphere for the crowded Act I . A shallower set, for Minnie’s cabin is appropriate for the more intimate proceedings of Act II. The wintry exterior of the mine entrance is appropriately bleak and dramatic for the playing out of the concluding act.

A youthful Placido Domingo makes a dashing Dick Johnson his greed turned to love on meeting Minnie. His final act aria in which he appeals to the mob not to tell Minnie that they have hanged him but rather let her believe that he has ridden away remorseful to a new life is particularly appealing. As Conrad Wilson says in his fine book, Giacomo Puccini, after two stanzas of this eloquent two-stanza lament, Sheriff Rance – the Californian equivalent of Scarpia in Tosca – replies by punching Dick in the face. "Because it comes so late in the opera, the aria is all the more potent in its effect. It is music more succinct, and more subtle than Cavaradossi’s comparable ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Tosca. It also, like the rest of La fanciulla requires its listeners to use their ears."

Silvano Carroli is a splendidly jealous Sheriff Jack Rance, his every oily gesture oozing ill-concealed menace. Mention must be made of Robert Lloyd, a strong, unrelenting Ashby, the Wells Fargo man and of Gwynne Howell, in his first act cameo as Jack Wallace the mining camp’s minstrel who sings so sentimentally, so nostalgically of home to the work-weary miners. The rest of the supporting cast and the Royal Opera Chorus impress strongly too.

In the title role Carol Neblett is ideally cast as the feisty but sincere, even motherly (to the miners who let her outlaw go at the end) Minnie. Her singing is rich and true with tremendous attack and confidence on her exposed high notes.

Despite skimpy documentation support, this is a very pleasing performance of one of Puccini’s later operas – a work that appeals more with every hearing. Domingo and Neblett are on top form.

Ian Lace



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