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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La Fanciulla del West

Italian opera goes west...with Jonas Kaufmann.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Just a small-town girl: Eva-Marie Westbroek as Minnie in La Fanciulla del West.
Photo © 2018 Royal Opera House of Covent Garden.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Eva-Marie Westbroek are reunited in Puccini's boiled spaghetti Western. This is the story of a barmaid and a bandit and their forbidden love against the spectacular backdrop of the California gold rush. It premiered at the Met in 1910. Beloved by connoisseurs, Fanciulla stands as one of the great Italian operas, and a work that is only revived occasionally. See it!
What is La Fanciulla del West?
This is the opera Puccini wrote following the wild triple success of La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Its English title is "The Girl of the Golden West." Created especially for an American audience, this is an Italian opera, set in California in 1849. The libretto is filled with odd-sounding anachronisms (dancing roughneck miners sing "Doo-dah doo-dah doo-dah day") and lines like "Cigarri e wiski per tutti!" but don't let that throw you--it's a really great opera.

What's the story?
The Fanciulla of the title is Minnie: a stunning blonde, an innkeeper, schoolteacher and the only woman in a rough-and-tumble California mining camp. She falls in love with "Dick Johnson from Sacramento" who is really the bandit Ramerrez in disguise. She learns his identity and saves him from certain death twice--but she does not get an aria to sing. Unlike many Puccini operas, everyone survives this one.

Tell me something else interesting?
When Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber raided Puccini's catalogue to write his Broadway smash The Phantom of the Opera, it was "A quello che tacete" Fanciulla that served as the source for the bridge melody in "Music of the Night." Sir Andrew paid massive royalties to Puccini's publishers.

What's the music like?
Well if it's good enough for Lloyd Webber, it's pretty good. This is one of Puccini's most colorful and inventive scores, finding the composer writing in an "American" idiom, and using a huge orchestra with astonishing flexibility and power. The music even pushes into the territory of atonality and bitonality (especially in the climactic poker scene in the second act) but it still sounds like Puccini.

Who's in it?
This revival marks the return of Jonas Kaufmann to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera after a long absence. Mr. Kaufmann has a reputation for canceling but hopefully he will be able to sing the role of Dick Johnson and provide the company with a badly needed early-season hit. (He only sings the final four dates: the first three feature Russian tenor Yusif Eyazov, the current husband of super-soprano Anna Netrebko.) The role of Minnie, which is one of the most challenging in the Italian repertory, is sung by Ms. Westbroek in all performances. Baritone Željko Lučić, who specalizes in playing ambivalent bad guys, is Sherriff Jack Rance in all performances.

How's the production?
Gorgeous and detailed, this staging arrived toward the close of the Met's fetish for rich and realistic-looking recreations of scenes and locations. The "Polka" Saloon, Minnie's house (complete with trees and a realistic snowstorm) and the bleak "town" set in the final act when Minnie saves Johnson from the miners--who are out to enact brutal frontier justice--are all stunning to behold.

When does La Fanciulla del West open?
Dick and Minnie ride again on Oct. 4. The Met Live in HD performance will be broadcast Saturday, Oct. 27 at 12:55pm.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save some money on service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza.

Box office hours are: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recordings do you recommend?

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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.