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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West
rec. Watford Town Hall, London, 1977
PENTATONE PTC5186243 SACD [59:20 + 70:36]

Like his previous opera, Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s American opera, La fanciulla del West, was based on a play by the American author David Belasco: The Girl from the Golden West. It was a resounding success when it was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 10 December 1910, conducted by his great compatriot Arturo Toscanini. The stellar cast no doubt also overwhelmed the audience: Emmy Destinn in the title role, Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson and Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance. Also several of the minor roles were cast by strength with singers still remembered by collectors of historical recordings: the great Polish bass Adamo Didur was Ashby, Antonio Pini-Corsi was Happy and legendary comprimario singer Albert Reiss was Nick, the bartender. Reiss sang during a period of eighteen years more than one thousand performances in fifty-six roles at the Met!

The early success didn’t mean, however, that the opera became a regular in the opera houses, the same way as most of Puccini’s other mature works. The composer himself regarded it as his greatest, and connoisseurs have often hailed it as a masterwork, but the general public has assumed an unsympathetic attitude towards it – though it seems that it has gradually become more accepted and it has been staged quite regularly for a couple of decades anyway. It has also been more neglected by the recording industry than his other works. Italian Cetra set it down in the early fifties and towards the end of the decade Columbia and Decca released recordings almost simultaneously. Columbia had the rapidly rising new star Birgit Nilsson as their trump card, Decca had the well-established Renata Tebaldi as Minnie and also boasted their macho-tenor Mario Del Monaco as Dick Johnson and American baritone Cornell MacNeil as Jack Rance. I gather Tebaldi won the race, though Nilsson’s achievement was duly apostrophized. Then there was a lacuna of almost twenty years, before DG issued the version under scrutiny and it has topped the list ever since, unchallenged also by RCA’s early 1990s effort with Eva Marton as Minnie. Some live recordings have appeared at various times and several qualified DVDs are available, but for a sound-only studio recording Tebaldi and Neblett are the only contenders.

The reasons for the relatively lukewarm reception in many camps are manifold. There are few self-contained numbers, which abound in his previous operas. The only well-known hit is Johnson’s short Ch’ella mi creda in the last act, just before he is going to be hanged. The orchestra becomes a much more active part in the dramatic development. One can, in Toscanini’s words, talk about “a great symphonic poem”. Harmonically Puccini is here much bolder, more modern, than before. Indeed he is more advanced even than in Turandot, almost fifteen years later. Rhythmically he is also more innovative, more American if you like. Of course he can’t completely hide his romantic background and the score overflows with marvellous melodies, but they are more fragmentary, he doesn’t go the whole hog. A telling situation is towards the end of the first act, Johnson and Minnie are alone, the miners are out, searching for the bandit Ramerrez. They both begin to realize that they are attracted to each other – and the music tells us the same thing. It grows in the typical Puccinian manner that we know will erupt in an all-embracing love duet. At that very moment Nick, the bartender, rushes in and the music stops. During a performance of La fanciulla at the Arena di Verona in the mid-1980s, someone in the audience turned so angry that he booed poor Nick, very loudly. And I understood him. It was like a slap in the face. He felt cheated. And so did I. Having seen the opera many times since then, both live and on DVD, I’ve become more and more fond of it, and nowadays I actually regard it as my favourite Puccini opera.

I had bought the present recording on LP a couple of years before I saw it in Verona but had played it only sparsely. Back home it came into favour again and has so remained, though admittedly it was quite some time since I played it. What Pentatone has issued is an SACD version employing the original multi-channel tapes. Since I haven’t got surround-sound facilities I have listened to the traditional two-channel sound, but even in that format there is both clarity and atmosphere that surpasses the original sound as I remember it from the LPs. The sound effects are also well-judged: pistol shots, the cards being thrown on the table. There is sheen on the strings and the joined Covent Garden forces deliver a punchy performance under Zubin Mehta. The many minor roles are taken by Covent Garden regulars of the day and there isn’t a weak link. Let me still single out a couple of distinguished performances: Gwynne Howell’s warm minstrel Jake Wallace, Malcolm King’s dynamic Larkens and Jonathan Summers’s deeply human and nuanced Sonora. Francis Egerton is an expressive Nick and Robert Lloyd’s mighty and authoritative bass makes Ashby stand out as a central character.

When it comes to the three main characters, the liner notes remind us of George Bernard Shaw’s statement: “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone”. The evil baritone in this case, Jack Rance, is himself keen on Minnie and makes his advances but is rejected and therefore jealous of any other intruder. Sherrill Milnes who, if I remember correctly, was not part of this Covent Garden production but was brought in for the recording, was cut out for this kind of nasty characters. His somewhat harsh tone and his snarling delivery are utterly telling. Plácido Domingo portrays Ramerrez/Johnson with his usual deep involvement, glowing in his declarations of love and sings his last act aria nobly and intensely. Carol Neblett, who passed away at the end of November aged 71, didn’t possess the creamy tones of Tebaldi, but she has a bite in the voice that seems appropriate for the role and she isn’t just a tough girl – she also shows vulnerability. She characterizes well and in the scene in her log cabin when she bargains with Jack Rance about Johnson’s life, she drains her voice of all sweetness and becomes toneless (CD 2 tr. 12). She is also at her very best in the card scene – both steely and vulnerable.

This recording has stood the test of time artistically and musically and in this remastered version it has state-of-the-art sonics as well. But one shouldn’t overlook the almost 60-year-old Decca recording. Technically it is still highly attractive, Tebaldi’s beauty of tone and dramatic intensity is at least on a par with Neblett’s and Mario Del Monaco in one of his best recordings is uncommonly nuanced – more in fact than Domingo – and his heroic singing is marvellous. Cornell MacNeil has a more beautiful voice than Milnes but can’t quite muster the evilness of his younger compatriot. As so often it’s a matter of swings and roundabouts. Those who love this opera as much as I do need both.

Göran Forsling

Performance details
Minnie – Carol Neblett (soprano)
Jack Rance – Sherrill Milnes (baritone)
Dick Johnson (Ramerrez) – Placido Domingo (tenor)
Nick – Francis Egerton (tenor)
Ashby – Robert Lloyd (bass)
Sonora – Jonathan Summers (baritone)
Trin – John Dobson (tenor)
Sid – Malcolm Rivers (baritone)
Bello – Tom McDonnell (baritone)
Harry – Paul Crook (tenor)
Joe – Robin Leggate (tenor)
Happy – William Elvin (bass-baritone)
Larkens – Malcolm King (bass)
Billy Jackrabbit – Paul Hudson (bass)
Wowke – Anne Wilkems (mezzo-soprano)
Jack Wallace – Gwynne Howell (bass)
José Castro – Eric Garrett (baritone)
Un Postiglione – Handel Owen (tenor)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Zubin Mehta


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