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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Opera Review: The Centennial Fanciulla at the Met

Dancin' at the Polka: Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani and Lucio Gallo
in La Fanciulla del West. Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
On Dec. 10, 1910, Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. On Friday, Dec. 10, the Met celebrated the 100th anniversary of that premiere with the second performance of this season's revival. Happily, the cast rose to the historic occasion.

Fanciulla remains the unruly problem child among Puccini's operas, a role it has enjoyed for a century. This vast, complex score uses folk songs, American melodies, sprechstimme and even moments of atonality. The score contains Puccini's boldest innovations, and prefigures the experimentation of his final opera, Turandot. The whole was ably conveyed by the stellar Met orchestra under the baton of Nicola Luisotti.

The plot (based on a play by David Belasco) violates a number of operatic clichés. Nobody dies onstage, although the tenor does get shot in the second act. There's a happy ending despite not being a comedy. And there's no aria for Minnie, the tituar Girl. Finally, it's a Western, complete with gunshots, horses and cries of "Wiski per tutti!"

Deborah Voigt played Minnie as the rough-and-tumble warrior with a heart of gold, who truly cared about the opera's vast cast of miners and rough characters. She sang her big moment with a clarion top voice and a metallic bite that never grated on the ears. For the opera's many dialogue scenes, she adopted a flowing, conversational style. Most impressive were the occasional reaches down to some surprising, firm low notes in the second act, as Minnie hides Ramerrez from the prying Sheriff.

She was well-matched with Marcello Giordani, who scaled new heights as the bandit Ramerrez, a.k.a. Dick Johnson. He raised the opera's energy level, matching well with Ms. Voigt in the big Act I and Act II duets, and taking the audience on a thrilling emotional ride in his big Act III aria. This was a touching, complex portrayal of the Romantic hero walking a narrow path between good and evil, a three-dimensional portrait instead of the usual cardboard hero.

The weak link in the triangle was Lucio Gallo as the Sheriff (and main antagonist) Jack Rance. On the plus side, Mr. Gallo played Rance with a minimum of mustache-twirling. He is in love (or at least in lust) with Minnie, and his obsession with the Girl proves to be his undoing in the famous Poker Scene. In the last act, he turns avenging angel, seeking to hang Ramerrez/Johnson and turning brutish. However, Mr. Gallo ran out of voice in this act, failing to cut through the ensemble texture or make himself heard over Puccini's Wagner-sized orchestra.

Luckily, the Met made good casting choices for the many smaller roles that make up the world of this opera. Dwayne Croft heads the list, taking the small role of Sonora with a rich, baritonal delivery. Keith Miller is memorable as Ashby. Oren Gradus sang well as the minstrel Jake Wallace, although his voice was nearly lost in Giancarlo del Monaco's vast recreaton of the Polka Saloon.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.