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Thursday, December 2, 2010

All Guns Blazing: A Guide to La Fanciulla del West

Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson, circa 1910
Photo © Metropolitan Opera Archives
Puccini's La Fanciulla del West ("The Girl of the Golden West") turns 100 years old next week. The Metropolitan Opera, which premiered the opera on Dec. 10, 1910, is celebrating the occasion with a revival of its current production, starring soprano Deborah Voigt as Minnie, the title role.

In some ways, "Le Girl" (as Puccini called her) is a more challenging role than Turandot. Like the icy Chinese princess, Puccini wrote for a full dramatic soprano. But Minnie is a much longer part, and requires a sweet delivery in addition to all the high notes and heroics.

Beyond the technical issues, there are other factors that may explain why La Fanciulla del West has never caught the public's imagination the way Bohéme, Tosca and Turandot did.

Minnie does not get a solo aria. She participates in ensembles and duets, and has lots of difficult music. But there's no 'spotlight' moment. Also, she gets to rescue the tenor and ride with him off into the sunset, but there's no spectacular death scene--making the role less attractive to divas longing to die onstage--or in the case of Tosca, leap off the back of it.

That said, in the right hands (Ms. Voigt's) it's a terrific part, running the gamut from the Act I lesson scene to the famous poker game in Act II, where Minnie gambles for the tenor's life, cheats and wins. Her prize: Dick Johnson, (in realty the nefarious bandit Ramirrez) who is in turn hunted by the sheriff, Jack Rance, an heir to Scarpia in tone and temperament. (Rance is a lot less evil than the Tosca villain--he wants to marry, not rape Minnie.)

As Johnson/Ramirrez, the tenor gets to sing the best tune in the opera, "Quel chello taccete." This theme was rewritten by Andrew Lloyd Webber for The Phantom of the Opera as "The Music of the Night." Sir Andrew was sued by Puccini's publishers, and paid an undisclosed sum in settlement.

On to the recordings. There are three that are of note:

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Franco Capuana
Minnie: Renata Tebaldi
Dick Johnson/Ramirrez: Mario del Monaco
Jack Rance: Sherrill Milnes

Renata Tebaldi recorded the role of Minnie in 1958, with the La Scala chorus and orchestra. This recording has excellent work in the compromario parts. But the big attraction here is Mario del Monaco as Dick Johnson. (God, that sentence sounds pornographic!) The Italian tenor is at the top of his form, and his long experience singing opposite Renata Tebaldi pays off in making the romance between Minnie and Dick--excuse me, Ramirrez--completely believable.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Academy of St. Cecilia, Rome cond. Lovro von Matačić
Minnie: Birgit Nilsson
Dick Johnson/Ramirrez: João Gibin
Jack Rance: Andrwa Mongelli

The classic 1959 set from EMI features the redoubtable Birgit Nilsson in a rare Italian role. Minnie is ideal for her instrument, although herformidable presence makes this an Italian girl that no-one in his right rootin'-tootin' mind would ever mess withg . She is backed by an adequate, if not especially memorable cast (João Gibin? Andrea Mongelli?) In fact, Nilsson was a last-minute replacement for Maria Callas, who decided not to record the role as she had never sang it onstage.

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Zubin Mehta
Minnie: Carol Neblett
Dick Johnson/Ramirrez: Placído Domingo
Jack Rance: Sherrill Milnes

With his good looks and swaggering demeanor, Placído Domingo makes a good case for himself as Dick Johnson in this 1977 recording. He is paired with Carol Neblett, a fine lyric soprano whose voice is taxed the the edge by the heavy demands of Minnie. Sherrill Milnes is in fine mustache-twirling form as Rance, the role he was born to play. Zubin Mehta is not the most inspired conductor, but the set sounds better overall than its '50s counterparts.

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