Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West does not enjoy the popularity of the rest of the composer’s mature works. It never will. It’s a wonderful piece that utilizes the orchestra to a greater degree than any other of Puccini’s operas. The orchestral writing is magical. One great melody follows another; they come and go in total sync with the words. Evey feeling, emotion, and mood is painted by the orchestra. But things move so swiftly that audiences used to Boheme and Butterfly often get left behind. The quicksilver orchestral depiction of the action is matched in Italian opera only by Verdi’s Falstaff.

I listened to the broadcast of the first performance of this run on December 6th of last year. Every high note from Deborah Voigt was off pitch. Today after her first high note, which was sharp, her pitch was spot on. Minnie is as difficult a role as Puccini ever wrote for a soprano. Voigt’s voice is not right for the part. nevertheless she did as much as she could on the telecast, but the needed sound is just not there. Just because you can do Brunhilde doesn’t mean you can do Minnie. In fact it likely means you can’t. Also, Marcello Giordani does not have the vocal heft for Dick Johnson – if that’s really his name. When Giordani sings lyric roles he sounds like a spinto. When he sings a spinto part he sounds like a lyric tenor. Life is unfair.

Lucio Gallo as the lecherous sheriff Jack Rance started out with little voice, but got louder as the afternoon progressed; but loud meant bellowing more than singing. Barbara Willis Sweete was the video director which was not good news for Mr Gallo. Ms Sweete believes that no pore should go unexposed. The only way she could have gotten closer was if she had put endoscopes on her cameras. I can see the promos – Live in HD From Met – Placido Domingo’s Colon. What else is left for him to do?

Gallo is given to mugging and he really opens his mouth wide when he sings. I thought he might swallow one of Ms Sweete’s camera along with its operators. Gallo overacted so much that only twirling his mustache was left in the ham actor’s locker. He seems to have based his impersonation on Don Fanucci in The Godfather II. Voigt and Giordani warbled away like two pudgy middle aged love birds compounding the departure from verisimilitude .

Gastone Moschin as Don Fanucci

So with the three principal roles performed by singers not ideal how did the whole show shape up? Great! The performers were good enough to allow Puccini, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, the men’s chorus, and the Met’s glorious orchestra to sweep away all disbelief. Puccini’s luminous score received such a revelatory reading that this was one of the most successful in this series of HD broadcasts from the Met.

Giancarlo Del Monaco’s 20 year old production has held up well and would have looked even better if Ms Sweete had allowed us to see more of it. Another complaint that belongs to all these broadcasts is the instantaneous switch from performance to backstage as soon as the curtain descends. This was particularly disturbing after the conclusion of the second act. The great effect made by Minnie’s triumph over Rance by cheating at cards was wiped out by an immediate  backstage shot of Johnson (Giordani) getting up and walking off. This scene demands that the audience be allowed to applaud and the principals to appear before the curtain to receive the acclaim they (or Puccini) deserve. The abrupt decompression totally obliterated the coup de theatre that Puccini so elegantly constructed. The increasingly common practice of holding curtain calls until the show is over is also, in my view, a bad idea that belongs to the legitimate theater but not to opera.

In this opera Puccini created a real character in Minnie. Johnson is a tenor, but Minnie lives. And unlike most of his operas his heroine does not have to suffer irreversible harm and degradation. That Ms Voigt is a fiftyish matron does not matter. Even with Sweete’s bitter closeups the music makes Minnie into the 25 year old vulnerable young woman she’s supposed to be. In choosing Johnson over Rance Minnie has likely made a bad decision. Nobody but her would believe that cockamamie load of bull he unloaded in the second act about his unfortunate childhood and upbringing.  He’s depraved because he’s deprived – apologies to Stephen Sondheim. My bet is that Johnson will be gone in a year and be unfaithful before that. Rance would have been loyal and a good provider, but he’s a baritone and love is blind – especially in opera.

Fanciulla has a lot of small roles that are integral to the work. All were well cast and performed. Particularly noteworthy were Dwayne Croft as Sonora, Keith Miller as Ashby, and Oren Gradus as Jake Wallace. The complete cast is given below. In summary, Fanciulla is a great opera that will appeal to a smaller audience than the rest of composer’s masterpieces. The Met did well by the piece. If you missed the live broadcast go to the repeat. It won’t be back for some time.

LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST
Giacomo Puccini-Guelfo Civinini/Carlo Zangarini

Minnie………………Deborah Voigt
Dick Johnson…………Marcello Giordani
Jack Rance…………..Lucio Gallo
Joe…………………Michael Forest
Handsome……………Richard Bernstein
Harry……………….Adam Laurence Herskowitz
Happy……………….David Crawford
Sid…………………Trevor Scheunemann
Sonora………………Dwayne Croft
Trin………………..Hugo Vera
Jim Larkens………….Edward Parks
Nick………………..Tony Stevenson
Jake Wallace…………Oren Gradus
Ashby……………….Keith Miller
Post Rider…………..Edward Mout
Castro………………Jeff Mattsey
Billy Jackrabbit……..Philip Cokorinos
Wowkle………………Ginger Costa-Jackson

Conductor……………Nicola Luisotti

Production…………..Giancarlo Del Monaco
Designer…………….Michael Scott
Lighting designer…….Gil Wechsler
TV Director………….Willis Sweete