La fanciulla del West was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 10 December 1910. The conductor was Arturo Toscanini and the cast was certainly impressive: Minnie was sung by Emmy Destinn, Dick Johnson by Enrico Caruso and Jack Rance by Pasquale Amato. I don’t think I exaggerate when I state that they were the best singers at the time each in their respective vocal pitch. Possibly it could be argued that Titta Ruffo was an even stronger candidate than Amato for Jack Rance’s role. And there were great names in several other roles: Albert Reiss, the greatest Mime of his time, sang Nick, the bartender, the big-voiced Adamo Didur was Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, Antonio Pini-Corsi was Happy and as Jake Wallace, the minstrel, was sung by Andrés De Segurola.
With such a cast it couldn’t flop and the opera was quite successful in the US but, even though it is played from time to time, it has never quite become established as a standard work. One reason is no doubt the lack of real hits. Dick Johnson’s short aria in act III, Ch’ella mi creda is quite often heard isolated from the opera but one such piece isn’t enough. It also takes too long before the central drama comes to the fore. The first half of act I feels rather empty with too many ‘Hellos’ from the various miners. All through the opera one hears phrases that seem promising: ‘Ah, here is a build-up to the big love duet.’ But it never comes - in any case not in the same shape as those in Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. The point is that Puccini aimed at something else. ‘I’m fed up with Bohème, Butterfly & Co’ he wrote. He wanted something different and, honestly, a hard-boiled Wild West story can’t be accompanied by the same kind of music as Bohème and Butterfly. And with hitherto musical elements, such as quotes from American folk music and Stephen Foster-like melodies and a colourful orchestration that seems to point forward to Turandot, he created a score that may have influenced the film music composers from the 1930s and onward. When things start to happen in act I it is easy to be caught by the proceedings and act II is a real thriller. With good singing actors in the leading roles and with evocative sets La fanciulla del West can still be a considerable success.
The present production, from the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago in 2005, has several good things to recommend it. The sets are stylized but basically realistic and, in combination with the likewise realistic costumes, we get a picture of a real-life adventure in bleak, sparse surroundings, poverty, loneliness, cold. In the second act, in Minnie’s cabin, we get glimpses of snow coming down heavily when the door occasionally is opened.
There is a lot of activity in the public scenes in act I and III and the cameras register quite often in close-ups of individual characters. There are no sensational, epoch-making angles but honest filming with relative modest means, not pushy as some productions can be. The acting is generally quite good and the three central characters are excellently played.
Fabio Armiliato may not be a new Caruso but I’m almost certain that he is a better actor than the legendary Neapolitan and he certainly has the looks and build of a Ramerrez. Besides this he sings very well. I have praised him on several occasions and must repeat that he has taste, style and ability to give a rounded portrait of Johnson/Ramerrez. He never overdoes the histrionics, rather preferring understatement yet with a heroic ring to make the big moments tell. His real-life wife, Daniela Dessi lacks that big dramatic voice that Emmy Destinn possessed but hers is also a finely nuanced heart-warming portrayal of the strong-willed Minnie. The third main character, the sheriff Jack Rance, is played with superb arrogance and a sardonic smile. He is at his most diabolic in the second act scene with Minnie and his singing of this testing role matches his acting.
The supporting cast is uneven but never less than tolerable. Andrea Patucelli as Ashby has a beautiful but rather pale bass; considering that Adamo Didur was Ashby at the premiere one would expect something more powerful and black. Massimo La Guardia, the bartender Nick, is a good character actor but his singing is more of a liability. Giovanni Guagliardo, the minstrel in the first act, is quite good, and Marzio Glossi draws an admirable portrait of the kind-hearted Sonora.
Alberto Veronesi ensures that the dramatic temperature is high and draws excellent playing from the orchestra. The recording is good.
There are a couple of other DVDs of this opera, which I haven’t seen, but I would guess that the 1982 recording from Covent Garden under Nello Santi has quite a lot to offer with Carol Neblett, Placido Domingo and Silvano Carroli in the leading roles. I have had a couple of glimpses of it and Neblett and Domingo also took part in the DG sound-only recording a couple of years earlier, also with Covent Garden forces but conducted by Zubin Mehta and with Sherrill Milnes as Jack Rance. This has been my favourite version for many years.
The present issue has a fine trio of main characters and should give a lot of pleasure.