Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West (1910) [132.08]
Renata Tebaldi (soprano: Minnie), Mario del Monaco (tenor: Johnson), Cornell MacNeil (baritone: Rance), Giorgio Tozzi (bass, Jake Wallace), Bianca Maria Casoni (mezzo-soprano, Wowkle), Cario Caselli (bass, Billy Jackrabbit), Piero de Palma (tenor, Nick), Enzo Guagni (tenor, Trin), Michele Cazzato (tenor, Happy), Angelo Mercuriali (tenor, Joe), Giorgio Giorgetti (baritone, Sonora), Edio Peruzzi (baritone, Bello), Mario Carlin (baritone, Harry), Silvio Maionica (bass, Ashby), Virgilio Carbonari (bass, Sid), Giuseppe Morresi (bass, Larkens), Athos Cesarini (tenor, Pony Express rider), Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia/Franco Capuana
rec. Rome, 1958
ALTO ALC2028 [61.13 + 70.55]

Some three years ago, when reviewing a DVD issue of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, I made large claims on behalf of the score, and for ease of access I will repeat here what I said at that time. “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 – and 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…but 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?”

My own affection and admiration for the opera dates back, indeed, to this very recording, the first time I ever encountered the score. Listening to it now brought back a wave of nostalgia, but at the same time highlighted certain faults in both performance and recording that I had been relatively happy to ignore at the time. The most serious of these relate to the casting of Mario del Monaco in the role of the bandit Ramerrez, disguised under the decidedly unconvincing pseudonym of Dick Johnson. Even when I first heard the LP records with the vocal score in front of me, I was concerned at the manner in which he attacked the higher reaches of the part (of which there are many); to take the worst example, the climax of his aria in Act Two [CD2, track 5] is delivered at maximum volume with absolutely no sense of light and shade and a total disregard for the rhythms of the words, emerging as one long brazen yowl. It was not until I heard Plácido Domingo in the role that I finally heard what Puccini had actually written in this passage, a thrilling experience; and Domingo indeed went on to become the premier exponent of the part for more than twenty years, recording it several times for both CD and video. It is surely a part that was made for him (he had begun to sing Otello at about the same time), and his subtlety of approach brings the sense of the disturbed mind of Johnson’s troubled character to real dramatic life in a way that del Monaco for all his panache completely fails to do.

Nor are the other two principals in this set really convincing. Renata Tebaldi was never totally happy in the heaviest Puccini roles – Tosca or Giorgetta, for example – and although she makes a good attempt at Minnie, a part she had never sung on stage at the time of the recording, her top notes sound distressingly raw and squally by comparison with Birgit Nilsson (who had sung the part as a substitute for Callas on a more or less contemporaneous EMI release, disfigured by cuts in the score and a generally less adequate supporting cast). Similarly Cornell MacNeil, a good solid baritone, is not ideally cast here. He shows a commendable willingness to sing quietly, as for example when he feels Johnson’s blood dripping onto his hand; but the sense of puzzlement followed by dawning realisation of what this means is never evident, in the manner that Sherrill Milnes achieves in the later Mehta recording (although Milnes is less effective in his assumption of the role in the Slatkin video, even more dramatically keen but in considerably reduced vocal circumstances). The only other role of any real prominence in Fanciulla is that of the ‘camp singer’ Jake Wallace, and Giorgio Tozzi is superb here in what is a peach of a part; but indeed all the recordings strike gold in this passage.

Another cause for concern in this 1958 recording is the nature of the sound, very good early stereo for its day and still passing muster; but the recorded balance somewhat undermines Franco Capuana’s already rather laid-back conducting. One of the most impressive features of Fanciulla is Puccini’s experimentation with modern compositional techniques, with passages that anticipate Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë and his employment of cakewalk rhythms uneasily allied to the use of whole-tone scales. Here many of these atmospheric harmonic effects go for too little, largely because the microphones are placed so closely to the already loud voices that the orchestra is sometimes relegated to the background. Listen, for example, to the squalling woodwinds which underpin the dialogue before the card game in Act Two [CD2, track 7], which are almost Stravinskian in their shrillness; here they sound almost incidental. Nor are the balances on stage faultless; just before this point, when Johnson goes out into the snow and is shot, the sound of the gunfire is distinctly closer than the knocks on Minnie’s door which follow immediately afterwards [CD2, track 6].

At a time when Fanciulla was more or less dismissed by the public and by the critics, this 1958 Decca recording took the score commendably seriously; and indeed it continued to be the recommended version in the Penguin Guide once it had been successfully transferred to CD, although earlier Edward Greenfield (for example in Opera on Record) had preferred the DG recording under Zubin Mehta, with Carol Vaness, Domingo and Milnes. Despite my affection for the Decca set, I would still go to that DG set to experience the score in its full glory both dramatically and musically. Nonetheless it is good that this economically priced transfer has now joined the many other gems from that period in the Alto catalogue, transferred from the original LPs and well remastered. There is also an enjoyable booklet note from James Murray which not only has some fun with the more absurd elements of the plot but also furnishes some remarkably candid biographies of the principal performers. It is a pity that the cast listing, restricted to the back of the booklet, does not give details of who sings what role in the supporting roles (and there are a number of typographical errors in the names given, such as “Giuseppi Moreressi”); the information above has been supplied and amended on the basis of the original Decca documentation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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