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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Opera Preview: La Fanciulla del West

New York City Opera will kick off its season with Puccini's most American opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cards with a stranger: Emmy Destinn (right) and Enrico Caruso (center) in Act II
of La Fanciulla del West. Photo © 1910 the Ricordi Archives.
The resuscitated New York City Opera has reclaimed its position as the leadoff hitter of the 2017 fall cultural season in New York City, as they prepare to open Sept. 6 with a staging of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.

This was Puccini's only opera written specifically for an American audience. It premiered in New York at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn heading the cast. Since then it has bobbed in and out of the repertory. This is the first City5 Opera production of the show since the 1970s and is produced in cooperation with Opera Carolina.

The opera was revived at the Met in 2010 for the work's anniversary, but Fanciulla (the title means "The Girl of the Golden West") never gained the same prominence in the repertory as the Italian composer's "big three" (La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly) or his last opera Turandot. However, it is more than a match for these works, combining an inventive story, memorable melodies and (uniquely, for Puccini) a happy ending.

Fanciulla is set in a California mining town, and is the story of Minnie, the local bartender at the "Polka" Saloon. She the only woman in the mining camp, and is romantically pursued by the town sheriff Jack Rance. However, she falls in love with "Dick Johnson, from Sacramento," a handsome stranger. He is actually the disguised bandit Ramirrez, and is there to rob the safe. He becomes Rance's quarry. She puts her life on the line twice to save her new boyfriend, and they ride off into the sunset together.

The combination of Italian libretto and Western American English can be a little awkward, with opera pundits snickering at phrases like "Wiski per tutti" and "Hallo, hallo" greetings. However, it is a powerful and inventive work, with a libretto that eschews a traditional chorus for an ensemble of demanding individual parts. We learn the musical personality of each man in this little town before Minnie even enters, and we see their love for her as a kind of angelic figure as she teaches them reading and Bible verses.

The second act is magical, from the snowy love duet between Minnie and "Johnson" to the climactic scene where Minnie plays cards with Rance (and cheats!) in order to save her man. The third act, when Minnie saves her lover from the miners (who are about to lynch the bandit) is the most moving of all, with melodies that resonate with the unique Puccini touch.

Powerhouse soprano Kristin Sampson (featured in last year's La campana sommersa) takes on Minnie, the most demanding of all roles in the Puccini repertory. (The title role in Turandot is taxing but she only sings for half of that opera.) Jonathan Burton is Dick Johnson and Kevin Short is the determined Jack Rance.

Due to the demands of its leading roles, Fanciulla is not performed or recorded as often as other Puccini operas. We here at Superconductor still enjoy the 1978 Zubin Mehta recording with Carol Neblett as Minnie opposite the still young Placido Domingo as Dick Johnson. It captures the cinematic sweep of this opera and the individual characteristics of the numerous small roles.

La Fanciulla del West opens Sept. 6 at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. Tickets available at the box office or through the official website of the New York City Opera

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