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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West (1910) - opera in three acts
Libretto C. Civinini and C. Zangarini, after the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco
Minnie, Mara Zampieri (sop); Jock Rance, Juan Pons (bar); Dick Johnson (Ramerrez), Placido Domingo (ten); Nick, Sergio Bertocchi (ten); Ashby, Luigi Roni (bass); Billy Jackrabbit, Aldo Bramante (bass); Wowkle, Nella Verri (mezzo-sop); Jake Wallace, Marco Chingari (bar); Jose Castro, Claudio Giombi (bass).
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro al!a Scala/Lorin Maazel
Stage Director, Jonathan Miller; Set Design, Stefanos Lazaridis;
Recorded Milan, 1991
OPUS ARTE LS3004 D [144:00]

Unusually for an opera directed by Jonathan Miller the setting seems to be true to time and place, something that will be a relief to purists. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. The saloon, for example, although recognisably a place for drinking and gambling, nevertheless looks rather like a cross between a factory and a jail. I havenít looked into this, but I guess that is supposed to be a symbolic comment on the minersí lot in the remote Wild West.

This live, 1991 La Scala offering has been around a while on video and has been much commented on. The consensus has been that it is a decent production all round apart from one musical drawback which is that the voice of the Girl of the Golden West is less than golden. Maria Zampieri does produce a rather harsh timbre that may grate on some ears more than others. It could be argued that the sound is appropriate for such a determined character as opposed to one for a sweet innocent. Having said that, there is an implication of virginal innocence in the character also, although that will be a matter of opinion just as Zampieriís voice is a matter of taste. I tend to the tolerant side and am conscious that in this visual medium, Maria Zampieri looks more convincing, than, for example Birgit Nilsson did in the role, however well the latter sang.

Dramatically, a fine singing/acting cast keeps the action taut, ensuring a powerful build-up to the near-harrowing conclusion. Lorin Maazel, as usual, can be relied upon to coax the orchestra into making the most of the musical high spots.

Placido Domingo provides the big brand name that will help sell this DVD. He inevitably sets his vocal stamp on the proceedings although some viewers may take time to adjust to the idea of him as a Mexican bandit (in spite of his real-life family credentials in this department). His hair style looks as if it might be more at home in a late eighties unisex hair salon than a 19th Century Western saloon. Mercifully though, it has been trimmed since his appearance as Lohengrin the year before when he sported an horrendously inappropriate near-bouffant affair.

One ingredient that determines the degree of dramatic success in a production that the great tenor leads is the chemistry between him and his leading lady. In the Lohengrin mentioned above, he and Cheryl Studer are excellent individually but the sparks donít fly between them. In this Golden Girl the chemistry score with Zampieri is higher though still not much above average. If you want to see a case of chemistry at the top of the scale (or even off it) then have a look at Placido and Shirley Verret in Meyerbeerís LíAfricaine. Itís on DVD and you will see what I mean.

The only rival DVD I know of is the earlier 1983 Covent Garden version, also with Domingo where he partners Carol Neblett who sings more prettily than Zampieri but doesnít match the looks. It is a competent production and the somewhat younger Domingoís acting and singing is probably even better; but Millerís direction in the La Scala version makes for a more interesting and dramatic visual experience.

So my recommendation would be this 1991 Opus Arte presentation which has the advantage of being the cheaper of the two if you shop around.

John Leeman

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