Glance at the back of the booklet provided with this set. It soon becomes clear that Frankfurt Opera in tandem with Oehms are steadily building a wide-ranging and impressive recorded catalogue under their Music Director Sebastian Weigle. To that list is now added Puccini’s last completed ‘grand’ opera La Fanciulla del West
. For many years the work has laboured under a reputation of being a relative failure with weaknesses in plot, characterisation and lacking the ‘killer’ melodies that marked out Puccini’s other works. In recent times it seems to have undergone something of a reassessment and while acknowledging that at times the plot does creak likewise Puccini created a wholly different aural world from that of say Madama Butterfly
just six years earlier. This reassessment is evidenced by a series of major productions around the world featuring top rank artists willing to undertake the considerable demands that Puccini makes of them.
For once, Puccini’s heroine is not a femme fatale doomed to die. For the only time in one of his major works, there is a happy ending – with the leading couple literally riding off into the sunset improbably accompanied by the singing of weeping miners.
As with most of the Frankfurt/Oehms productions this is a recording – a soundtrack if you like – of a live performance. This seems to be the preferred economically viable way of recording opera today but it comes at a price. The audience is all but silent with no applause – except for the earnest way opera audiences laugh at ‘jokes’ in a foreign language – so that whenever the Native American servant of Minnie says “ugh” in Act 2 we get a knowing ‘chuckle’. My two main concerns are the large amount of stage noise generated by this production and the fact that the principals seem unable to sing at any dynamic except loud to louder. The stage noise is a real problem for me here – in the first act especially with a lot of business for the male chorus of miners there is no end of clumping around the stage with doors slammed and general ‘noises off’. It goes way beyond the atmospheric and into the invasive. As part of a DVD presentation there is not an issue because the eye is able to create the linkage - with audio alone I find I start wondering what bit of stage action has caused the sound and the focus on the music is lost. Then ironically important stage sounds such as the firing of a pistol sounds more like a cap gun I had as a five year old.
Setting that aside for one moment to consider the vocal leads; as was his preferred format, Puccini sets up a standard vocal triumvirate with eponymous soprano, tenor love interest and baritone baddie. Eva-Maria Westbroek has made the part of the feisty Minnie something of a signature role. She appears in the Netherlands Opera's 2009 DVD of the opera - I do not know if this current version is due for DVD release too. My only other encounter with Ms Westbroek was in the stunning Netherlands Opera DVD of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
from 2006 - a remarkable account from all concerned. She seems to have taken on some vocally heavy roles in the intervening years and I noticed a certain harshness and lack of control in the higher registers that I do not recall from the earlier performance. Certainly, even without any images, she conveys an intense and compelling vocal characterisation but her actual instrument is not as alluring as it was even eight years before. That being said I find her wholly more impressive than the vocally wooden Carlo Ventre who plays the love interest role of Dick Johnson aka the outlaw Ramerrez. Ashley Holland’s Sheriff Jack Rance is solidly sung and Act II dénouement game of cards is well performed – but no better than in other versions.
Mentioning other versions, this is probably the point to make direct comparisons. I had three other versions to hand, two audio and one DVD. Birgit Nilsson’s EMI recording from La Scala under Lovro von Matacic has always suffered in comparison to the nearly identically dated performance on Decca led by Renata Tebaldi. In isolation there is much that is impressive about Nilsson’s performance not least here fearless assault – as usual – on the many high-lying passages. Certainly she is more comfortable in the role than Mara Zampieri is, also at La Scala, under Lorin Maazel on a 1991 DVD. Her Johnson is Placido Domingo. Domingo features in the well-known CD set on DG based on a Covent Garden production conducted by Zubin Mehta. Minnie is sung by Carol Neblett and Sherrill Milnes plays Rance to perfection. This latter version seems to me to have the best of all worlds; it benefits from being a staged production with parts really sung in yet recorded in a studio allowing detail and nuance to register. Mehta, at this time in his career was willing to play the extremes of Puccini’s score for all they are worth: rhythms swagger, climaxes surge and he clearly believes in the power of the score. I think I am right in saying it is performed without the little stage cuts that compromise the Matacic performance. I do not have a score of this work so cannot say whether the Frankfurt recording is absolutely complete or not.
The Oehms recording of the Frankfurt orchestra leaves me a little confused. They play very well but there is a strangely flat stereo spread and synthetic balance from pit to stage. I cannot quite put my finger on it but there is little or no illusion created of a theatrical experience. The voices are well caught but except for the occasional very blatant ‘off-stage’ vocal effects – the famous minstrel song Che faranno vechi miei
sung by Jake Wallace [Franz Mayer] is an obvious example – there is no attempt to give a front to back perspective to voices while on-stage. Alongside Mehta, Weigle’s conducting is functional at best. Returning to Che faranno
as an example, the orchestra’s imitation of a banjo is very metronomic and literal – but then so is Mayer. Comparing Mehta - who has Gwynne Howell as Jake – is infinitely more moving without resorting to overt sentiment. But this points up the fact that the secondary and even tertiary casting for the Covent Garden production was far more stellar than the competent but never great Frankfurt version. The Covent Garden Chorus – not having to run around - sound vocally superior too.
Another less than impressive moment is Minnie’s entrance – dangerously delayed the old hands of dramaturgy would have you think. Puccini writes music for the ecstatic miners that verges on the graphically sensual. Weigle pushes through to the climatic phrase but then the moment is past almost before it registers. Mehta’s pace is very similar but the transition from climax to Minnie’s first phrase is so much more skilfully graduated and the DG recording – not far off forty years old now – lets inner details register in a way that quite eludes the Oehms technical team. Neblett is in fresher voice than Westbroek – dramatic and ardent for sure but with enough of a hint of youthful idealism that allows her to fall for a rogue like Johnson. The Mehta/Neblett/Domingo recording is by no means flawless but it has little to fear from this new version. Weigle’s conducting is rather square through the entire work, competent is about as positive as I can be. Even the snapping cake-walk rhythms that were deemed so ‘modern’ in 1910 have a literal accuracy to them that drains the energy and excitement.
The seventy page booklet – in English and German only – contains no libretto. There is a synopsis, extended artist biographies and several production photographs. In addition we are given quite an extended article which reads as though it were lifted from the performance programme giving us the socio-psychological ‘motivation’ behind the work; “the existential vulnerability and violability of mankind, the fatalistic prevailing mood of his lost illusions as well as the language of his passions form the form the overall colour and basic atmosphere of this work.” All of which might be true, but ultimately if its not that compellingly sung or performed do you really care?
Not having heard Westbroek’s other performance I cannot make a comparison with this. She is the main, if not only, reason to consider this set. Against her contribution is stacked an unappealing Johnson and no more than competence elsewhere. The exceptionally noisy staging, unidiomatic conducting and no libretto rule this performance out for me. No happy ending here.