Talk to any theater person and he’ll tell you that the second act curtain should descend on the show’s strongest scene. Nobody was better at ending the second act than Giacomo Puccini. With the premiere of the Met’s revival La Fanciulla del West less than a month away, I thought I’d present a few versions of the opera’s second act finale. This the scene where the heroine, Minnie, plays cards with the lustful sheriff Rance – a baritone naturally – for the life of her wounded lover (Dick Johnson). Johnson, of course, is a tenor. In the hands of any other composer this scene would be a joke; but the master from Lucca, if he has the right soprano and conductor, sweeps the audience away with five minutes of tension that explodes in the scene’s last seconds – a tour de force.
I can’t resist pointing out that the opera’s tenor is the only stage character I can think of whose both first and last names are slang for the same important organ. After all this site is half devoted to medicine and anatomy is part of the medical curriculum. While Puccini didn’t speak English David Belasco who wrote the play on which the opera is based obviously did. Perhaps he led a cloistered life; he did affect a clerical collar despite being Jewish.
Having violated every rule of the short essay, I’d best return to the subject – the poker scene. In Italian it’s ‘Una partita a poker’ – literally ‘A game of poker’. The stakes are the life of Minnie’s wounded and unconscious lover, whats his name, and Minnie’s love or at least her person. It’s two out of three hands that wins. Minnie wins the first hand, Rance the second, and Minnie the third – but only by cheating. She’s a real hypocrite professing virtue and clean living up until this critical moment – but a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. To the amazement of the sheriff Minnie displays a full house at the end of the third and decisive game - Tre assi e un paio! After the sheriff has lost he says “Good night” and leaves. Most baritones blow their exit line by saying “Buona notte” as if they were leaving a church social. Here’s how it should be done. The baritone is the incomparable Tito Gobbi. Compare his interpretation to those presented below. Gobbi Buona notte.
Many opera buffs, maybe most, prefer Renata Tebaldi’s over the top rendition of this scene. I like it too, but she’s so far off pitch in the scene’s last lines that you might think Alban Berg wrote the notes. By 1970 when this recording was made her voice had gone shrill above the staff and her pitch was uncertain. Still, she gave it her all. The baritone is Anselmo Colzani. Colzani had a major career, singing at most of the world’s important houses. He sang Rance everywhere. He came to the Met in 1960 to help fill the void left by Leonard Warren’s death. Colzani could have been a great baritone if he had sung more and crooned less. He constantly slid from one note to another. Once you notice this awful mannerism it drives you mad. He’s more a trombone than a baritone. That a coach or conductor didn’t break him of the habit suggests they weren’t listening. Tebaldi poker scene
Birgit Nilsson doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of sopranos that might portray Minnie. Though she set the standard for another of Puccini’s ladies. Turandot is colder than Lake Michigan in January while Minnie is drenched with passion. If the great Swede lacks Italian heat she does have all the voice needed for the part and this role needs a lot of voice. The baritone is Andrea Mongelli. Nilsson Poker scene
Eleanor Steber and Giangiacomo Guelfi performed Fanciulla in Florence in 1954. Mario del Monaco was Dick Johnson. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted. The performance was recorded and is still available. It’s a great rendition and you can get it for only one euro. Steber doesn’t carry on the way Tebaldi does, but she has all the power and pitch needed for the scene’s last lines. Steber Poker scene
My favorite interpretation of this scene is that of Antonietta Stella. Stella had a brief career; by the time she was 35 her best days were behind her. But for a while she was dazzling. She was attractive, a great actress, and had a beautiful spinto voice. Her career at the Met came to a sudden halt in 1960 when she was only 30 years old. She had told Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general director, that she was ill at a time she was under contract to appear at the Met. She then sang at La Scala. Bing found out, even in 1960 you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out, and fired her.
I saw her perform a number of times. but the role that I vividly remember was Madama Butterfly. She appeared in the Met’s brilliant new production of the opera directed by Yoshio Aoyama and designed by Motohiro Nagasaka. Opening night, February 19, 1958, was a sensation. Everything came together perfectly. Stella had one of the Met’s greatest triumphs. The whole production was an equally great triumph. She remains the best Butterfly I’ve ever seen.
Here’s an almost 50 year old video of Stella and Colzani doing the Poker Scene. It’s from a Japanese telecast.
Deborah Voigt, the Met’s new Minnie, is going to have to contend with the ghost of Tebaldi when she tosses the cards at the end of Act 2. The show will be telecast on January 8th so we’ll all get to see how she does.