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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 2072598 [140.00]

Having seen the premiere of this production on 17 December 2011 - a couple of months before the video filming - I was naturally keen to see it in home cinema format. My wife even more so since she had to watch the premiere on a 17” TV-set in execrable sound in the lobby, due to terrible coughing, the after-effect of pneumonia we both contracted on a visit to New York earlier in the autumn. Revisiting it in ‘compact’ format gave me no reason to revise my positive reaction back in 2011.
 
Though La fanciulla del West literally means ‘The Girl from the West’ it has long been known as ‘Flickan från Vilda Västern’ (The Girl from the Wild West) in Sweden. Last time it was seen in Stockholm was, incidentally, in the mid-1930s when Jussi Björling was Dick Johnson. In English it has been entitled ‘The Girl from the Golden West’ which was the title of David Belasco’s play, upon which Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini based their Italian libretto for Puccini.
 
Set at a mining camp at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains in California in mid-19th century - the most American setting imaginable - the Italian language jars with the situations and the environment. The miners’ insistent shouts of Hello! in the opening scene sound sorely misplaced. They do however provide local colour, just as Consul Sharpless and Lieutenant Pinkerton show their origins in Madama Butterfly (another play by Belasco), drinking whisky not sake when they meet.
 
‘The opening [of this La fanciulla del West] is truly stunning: during the orchestral prelude - one of the best pieces of film music imaginable - a black and white Hollywood style movie introduction is shown on a screen, very 1930s with all the details about director and actors. Minnie on horseback is seen riding through a Wild West landscape, she sets off and starts running towards the camera and - BANG! she jumps through the screen, revolvers in hands. Nina Stemme is with us. No wonder there were applause!’ Thus I wrote in my review of the premiere. I still regard this as a superbly brilliant start but I have to admit that the effect wasn’t as overwhelming on the small screen as I had hoped. Possibly on one of those giant screens that fill half the living-room in some apartments it would have had the intended effect and definitely, I believe, at a HD-relay in a movie theatre. My wife appreciated it greatly, nevertheless. There were some other things that worked well in the theatre but left a somewhat muddled impression on the screen: in particular the projections in the background, with close-ups of the action that was taking place in the foreground. Not that they added much to the drama in the opera house either but they were more comprehensible. My colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey had some misgivings about the sets, in particular in the final act which ‘is not played in a forest but in the empty saloon of the first act. The snare, where Johnson is supposed to be hanged, is lowered through a hole in the ceiling. This works, even though Rance’s words that Johnson will be highest in the forest seem a little off the mark.’ as I wrote in my review. Whether this is artistic freedom or just plain inability to let things alone, is another matter.
 
Musically the level is extremely high. Pier Giorgio Morandi has been a frequent guest in Stockholm, mostly in Italian repertoire. He knows the forces there like the back of his hand and he knows where to hold back and where to move forward for maximum dramatic effect. La fanciulla del West is not Puccini’s best known opera, maybe not even his best - even though Puccini himself held this work in particular high esteem. It takes time to warm up - as do most of his operas - but it is possibly the most colourful and technically most advanced. Also there are lots of felicities in this score that take some time to discover.
 
Dick Johnson’s Ch’ella mi creda in the last act is the only really well known number. Even this aria is so integrated into the whole entity that the tenor never gets any credit in the shape of applause. This part, as well as those of Jack Rance and Minnie, need great singing actors, and that is what they get here.
 
Nina Stemme is acclaimed as the greatest Wagner soprano of her generation. Thus it is easy to forget that earlier on she sang mostly Italian repertoire. Minnie is also the toughest soprano among the Puccini heroines. Well, Turandot is a hell of a part but Minnie’s is longer. Stemme is superb in the role: ‘She is a splendid actor and even though Puccini was mean enough not to give Minnie a real aria, she gets plenty of opportunities to expose her brilliant dramatic voice. Still it is her sensitive handling of the more intimate scenes that impresses most of all.’
 
The Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko has rapidly risen to the top layer of tenors in the Italian repertoire. Since I first heard him in Oslo in 2005 his voice has darkened slightly and filled out. He is now one of the leading Otellos in the world. He has preserved his beauty of tone and the ease of delivery. His is a marvellously nuanced reading. As an actor he is a bit stiff and unwieldy and this is more obvious when exposed in close-ups. Zoran Todorovich from Amsterdam 2009, with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Lucio Gallo, (Opus Arte OA1039 D) is a more dynamic personality and that DVD is wholly admirable as well.
 
Jack Rance is here sung by John Lundgren, a Swedish baritone mainly active in Denmark. His power and black venom made him stand out as a formidable sheriff. He is actually in the same league as Juha Uusitalo; Uusitalo was a tremendous Rance in Helsinki some years ago.
 
The long list of minor characters is cast from strength and I just want to single out Niklas Björling Rygert, the eminent character tenor, who is an eminent Nick. John Erik Eleby’s beautifully sung Jake Wallace, portrayed as Charlie Chaplin. It’s an absurd anachronism but after all, in the Amsterdam production mentioned above, Jake Wallace was an Elvis Presley lookalike.
 
In spite of some misgivings from Paul Corfield Godfrey and myself, this is a great production. The singing is glorious and it now goes to the top of the list of available DVD versions of La fanciulla.
 
Göran Forsling 

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey


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