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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Fanciulla del West (1910) [132:48]
Cluj-Napoca Choir
Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Foster
rec. June 2019, Studio of Radio Cluj, Romania
Text and translation included
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186778 [60:19 + 72:29]

A few years ago my colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey, in his review of a reissue of the old Tebaldi recording of this opera wrote, “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.” Did Puccini regard this opera so highly because he thought it was actually better than his other compositions?

It is a fact that the period of composition occurred during the most personally tumultuous episode of Puccini’s career. The “Affaire Doria” nearly destroyed the Puccini family in a very public and legal sense. Briefly, the Puccinis' maid, Doria Manfredi was accused by Elvira Puccini of having an affair with her husband. Her very public accusations and harassment of the girl in the small village of Torre del Lago, where the Puccini’s made their home, became so desperate for Doria that she ended her life by taking poison in January 1909. The legal battle mounted by Doria’s family lasted into the summer and became headline news around the world. The fact that Puccini did not actually have an affair with Doria was only finally proved a few years ago when long-hidden letters were revealed which made clear that Puccini did have an affair, but with Doria’s cousin Giulia Manfredi who was, coincidentally, a tavern keeper. The entire episode placed an enormous strain on the Puccini household, and also interrupted the composition of the opera which Puccini had begun in 1907.

Act Three seems to have given Puccini the most enormous trouble, as he desperately searched for a way to refocus the final act of Belasco’s rather matter-of-fact play into something that he could fill with emotion and meaning. Puccini was especially driven to find a way to make Minnie redeem the character of Dick Johnson in some way. Was the need for this a way for Puccini to allay the deep guilt he felt over his part in the tragedy that consumed them all? It seems likely to this reviewer and for that reason I will suggest that Puccini’s particular love for this work was complicated for a number of very personal reasons.

In the end the New York premiere of the opera in December 1910 was deemed a failure on many levels by the critics. In the fascinating book “Puccini and the Girl” by Annie J. Randall and Rosalind Gray Davis (University of Chicago Press, 2005), the authors detail the enormous publicity build-up the opera received prior to its premiere. It was generally marketed as something revolutionary and extremely American in its content. This led to a huge public disappointment as the New Yorkers were expecting a work sung in English filled with well known American songs worked into the score. The most common criticism of the work was that it wasn’t nearly American enough. Puccini came to be very defensive on this subject and this reaction has stalked the opera for over a century and still features in criticism of it today. My response to it is “hogwash.” Fanciulla is one of Puccini’s most complex scores and features the one heroine who is the most three-dimensional in the entire Puccini canon.

There are only five prior commercial recordings of Fanciulla; the most recent was Leonard Slatkin’s version from Munich, which is essentially the least recommendable one. Pentatone has brought forth a bright new studio recording which they have released on SACD, although I am auditioning a digital, two channel stereo version. The sound that arrives on this recording from Romania is quite fine indeed. The orchestral textures are beautifully clear and there is a moderate feeling of space around the instruments, less so for the voices. In this regard it doesn’t quite come to the level of the old Decca recording with Tebaldi, but it is certainly an improvement on the very constricted sound that DG summoned up for the otherwise superb Mehta recording (Originals 4748402 or Pentatone SACD PTC5186243 - review).

Lawrence Foster leads the excellent Transylvanian orchestra in a somewhat careful reading of Puccini’s most impressionistic score. He shies away from driving things forward with the marvelous feeling of tension that Lovro von Matačić did for the EMI/La Scala version with Birgit Nilsson (Warner 3818622 - review, now download only, mid-price, no booklet). His view of the score more closely resembles that of Franco Capuana on Decca (4215952, download only, no booklet). Foster is at his finest in the third act, especially from the point at which Minnie enters to free Dick Johnson on to the end of the opera.

Melody Moore is a really believable Minnie. Her voice is the most convincingly youthful sounding Minnie on any recording. Her tone is steady and she sings with feeling for the words and the drama. There are times when the role seems just too large for her and she becomes drowned out by the orchestral climaxes but this is a rare occurrence.

Her Dick Johnson is a very reliable Marius Vlad, who is possessed of a voice that is responsive and well above average quality among tenors that are currently trotted before the public. He doesn’t quite have the ability with the text of Ms Moore, and vocally he is not in the same league as Placido Domingo or Jăo Gibin, who is my favorite Johnson of them all. Vlad delivers a nicely crafted version of “Ch’ella mi creda libero”. I shall never get over my disappointment that Ben Heppner did not record this complete role, as his 1995 recording of the same aria is one of the finest I have come across, and the role would have suited him down to his toes.

Lester Lynch defines Jack Rance well. Rance is a complex character to enact as he is a villain who isn’t really villainous, merely unpleasant and pushy. Lynch captures this quite well although he too is not quite up to the level of Sherrill Milnes for Mehta or the underrated Andrea Mongelli for von Matačić. The smaller roles are for the most part given excellent performances by a group of talented young singers. The performers of Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit are two of the best in what is mostly a fine ensemble cast.

This is only the second recording to include the Act One scene between Minnie and Billy Jackrabbit that Puccini excised before the premiere. It lasts only a few minutes but it is important because it makes Minnie a more rounded character as she harasses Billy for not marrying Wowkle because of their baby. Minnie’s saintly persona slips directly after her Bible lesson and she becomes believable because of this human flaw. Leonard Slatkin was the first to restore it to CD so it is most welcome to see it return on this newest release.

To sum up, a reasonably good version can be welcomed on SACD, even if it doesn’t displace the top recommendation, which remains the near-perfect Mehta recording on DG, derived from the Royal Opera House production in 1977.

Mike Parr

Melody Moore – Minnie (soprano)
Marius Vlad – Dick Johnson (tenor)
Lester Lynch – Jack Rance (baritone)
Gustavo Castillo – Jake Wallace (baritone)
Ilseyar Khayrullova – Wowkle (mezzo-soprano)
Alexander Köpecki – Billy Jackrabbit (bass)
Amitai Pati – Nick (tenor)
Radu Simpan – Trin/ Pony Express Rider (tenor)
Rareș Munteanu – Happy (tenor)
Lóránt Barta – Joe (tenor)
Kevin Short – Sonora (bass-baritone)
Ruben Ciungan – Bello (baritone)
Alessandro Luciano – Harry (tenor)
Martin-Jan Nijhoff – Ashby (bass)
Alexandru Suciu – Sid (baritone)
Antonio Di Matteo – Larkens (bass)

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