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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La fanciulla del West (1910) [140.00]
Nina Stemme (soprano) - Minnie; Aleksandrs Antonenko (tenor) - Johnson; John Lundgren (baritone) - Rance; John Erik Eleby (bass) - Jake Wallace; Agneta Lundgren (mezzo) - Wowkle; Alar Pintsaar (bass) - Billy Jackrabbit; Niklas Björling Rygert (tenor) - Nick; Karl Rombo (tenor) - Trin; Kristian Flor (tenor) - Happy; Magnus Khyle (tenor) - Joe; Olia Eliasson (baritone) - Sonora; Linus Börjesson (baritone) - Bello; Conny Thimander (baritone) - Harry; Anton Eriksson (baritone) - Castro; Michael Schmidberger (bass) - Ashby; Gunnar Lundberg (bass) - Sid; Ian Power (bass) - Larkens; Jon Nilsson (tenor) - Pony Express rider
Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus and Orchestra/Pier Giorgio Morandi
rec. Royal Swedish Opera House, February 2012
Director: Hannes Rossacher
Stage Director: Christoph Loy
Picture Format: NTSC
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1
Region Code: 0
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese
Booklet Notes: English, German, French
16:9 shot in 1080i HD; stereo and 5.1 surround sound
co-production of BFMI, SVT and Unitel Classica
EUROARTS DVD 2072598 [140.00]

Whenever I hear a performance of La fanciulla del West I am always tempted to think of it as Puccini’s greatest opera - Puccini thought so, too. I am mystified by the fact that it is regarded as falling firmly into Puccini’s ‘second league’, failing to match Bohème,Tosca, Madam Butterfly or Turandot in popular favour. Perhaps the long series of brief cameo scenes which launch the First Act may go on for rather too long, although in this performance the scene featuring Billy Jackrabbit is omitted. Once Minnie and Johnson are dancing together, the score comes to life and maintains blistering heat for the rest of the evening. The idea of Californian gold prospectors singing in Italian has sometimes been cited as an obstacle; but we willingly accept historical characters in other operas singing in languages other than their own, so why not here?
 
Apart from the matter of language, Puccini’s Fanciulla is so closely linked to the American West that it tends thankfully to defy any attempts to shift its location elsewhere - not that this has always stopped producers trying. In terms of period it is more flexible. Puccini specifies the date as 1849, the date of the Californian gold rush; but in his otherwise highly realistic production for the Metropolitan Opera Giancarlo del Monaco had a photograph of Abraham Lincoln above the bar of the Polka saloon, thus dating the period to some time after 1860. Here the patterned wallpaper on the walls of Minnie’s room - not to mention the high heels she dons for her assignation with Dick Johnson - place the action somewhere in the early 1900s. Christof Loy goes one step further than del Monaco in the realism stakes by playing a film of Minnie riding across the American plains - somewhere further east than California - in the best Hollywood Western style. One wonders what will happen when another singer takes over the part, since we see Nina Stemme in close-up during this sequence.
 
The film element is preserved throughout, with cameras focused on the singers and projecting them in close-up onto a screen at the back at various dramatic high points. This might seem to be distracting, especially when the video director here concentrates on the film rather than the live singers. In point of fact it works quite well even when it does lend a slightly self-conscious element of artificiality to proceedings. What are less satisfactory are the stage sets. The Polka appears to be a very down-at-heel establishment, almost totally devoid of any decoration. Minnie is shown to have a small office on the left of the proscenium where she is seen reacting to the action on the main stage long before her official entrance into proceedings. Her cabin in the mountains is a rather more luxurious establishment than we are accustomed to; apart from the wallpaper, it also runs to a back bedroom, an attic accessed by a ladder - needed for the plot - and a front hall complete with places where visitors can leave their coats. There is a nice touch when, having curled up in front of the fire, Minnie suddenly jumps into bed with Johnson before they are interrupted. This is clearly less of a virginal maiden than the hard-bitten Girl we usually encounter.
 
Where this setting for production really falls down however is in the final Act. Both del Monaco at the Met and Piero Faggioni at Covent Garden - the only other video of this opera I have seen - relocate the scene from the forest clearing specified by Puccini to a semi-ruined mining settlement. This not only contradicts the references in the text to the forest but fails to provide a stage picture to match Puccini’s atmospheric opening bars. Here we seem to be back in the Polka tavern, now shuttered up and with its furniture removed. Again we see Minnie in her little office, seemingly oblivious to the gathering furore of the lynch mob activity which is taking place just the other side of the wall. When Nick bribes Billy to ‘go slow’ with the preparations for the hanging, he doesn’t go off to bring Minnie to the rescue, he simply stands guard over her office door. This makes one wonder how she manages to turn up in the nick of time, not that she had far to come in this setting. The grand spectacle of her arrival - in the original performances Minnie used to ride in on horseback - is completely lost, and not all the spectacular orchestral outbursts in the world can rescue it.
 
This is a pity, because otherwise this production is really very good indeed. The various prospectors and miners, who can all too easily coalesce into a background of picturesque characters, have real individuality and personalities. The look of Trin’s face during Minnie’s ‘bible lesson’ is a picture of innocence. Nick the barman becomes quite a forceful personality. Wowkle becomes a positively engaging character when she is so obviously keen on getting Minnie and Johnson into bed together.
 
Even so, any performance of Fanciulla clearly stands or falls by its three principals, and here the Royal Swedish Opera score highly. Nina Stemme is, as I have observed, a more knowing Minnie than usual, but she brings that interpretation off well and without ever betraying the character as presented in the music. John Lundgren as Rance is properly ambiguous, tormented by jealousy and rage but still at heart a gentleman. Aleksandrs Antonenko is perhaps rather too well-upholstered to be convincing as a starving Mexican bandit in disguise; but he has an engaging manner and an expressive face. He even manages to make his fainting fit believable.
 
Fanciulla was Puccini’s first-ever opera to have a happy ending, although one does wonder how the two lovers who have already demonstrated such a readiness to cheat and lie are going to keep their relationship together in the future. Giancarlo del Monaco at the Met focused on Rance’s despair at the final curtain, which is wrong in the context of Puccini’s serenely happy music. Here Rance retires into Minnie’s office and sits thunderstruck at her desk, and is seen no more.
 
In terms of musical values, this recording rates very highly indeed. It has long been a fashion for Wagnerian sopranos to take on the role of the Girl - Emmy Destinn created the part, and Birgit Nilsson recorded it in the 1950s. Nina Stemme here stands well in that line. Some of the highest notes clearly tax her resources but then that is largely Puccini’s fault in that he does not allow his soprano much time to work up to these. Antonenko as her lover produces some excellent sounds, rich and plangent and full of expressive detail. He is not frightened to sing quietly when the opportunity offers, making a refreshing change from the bull-in-a-china-shop approach of earlier singers such as Mario del Monaco. John Lundgren is not given the same freedom of expression by the composer but he makes the most of what he has and his voice is rich and well-sustained. The rest of the cast contains no weak links, right down to the ‘camp minstrel’ of John Erik Eleby who floats his nostalgic song beautifully and rightly breaks the heart of his listeners.
 
The chorus sing lustily and firmly throughout, given individual characterisation by the production. At the same time they float their offstage humming at the end of Act One with real sensitivity and finesse. Pier Giorgio Morandi in the pit conjures up a real storm from the orchestra, never pulling Puccini’s massively dramatic punches, but also bringing out much detail in the often impressionistic writing. Indeed musically this DVD is superior to the Met production conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and were it not for the stage design for the final Act it would deserve unqualified praise.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 


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