“Laggiu nel Soledad, Cento Anni Fa”: Fanciulla del West in Review, Then and Now

Months ago, I voiced my opinion about the interesting casting for this important 100th anniversary production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West.” Tonight, I recall some of the history associated with this important opera.  In 1910, Fanciulla debuted at the MET with Puccini in the audience and with hand-picked singers, Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn.  The libretto was written by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, based on the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco.

Since I first heard Fanciulla, the score and the text fascinated me for a number of reasons.  In honour of the 100 years ago since Puccini’s Golden Girl premiered, I would like to explore some of those reasons here and also express my opinions on this evening’s broadcast and how the two amalgamate, or separate.

Fanciulla was composed in 1908, after a very emotional and psychologically tumultuous period in Puccini’s life.  It is also the first work in which his heroine does “not” die.  There is a very significant reason for this, one that was very personal and yet effected musically and dramatically in the extension of Minnie’s character.  But, it is not only this that distinguishes Minnie from his other heroines.  Her other supreme asset is her authority over the men…a trait Puccini continues to explore in Turandot. (Effectively, all of Puccini’s have some authority over men, but stay tuned for that conversation in upcoming opera chats/lectures).

The premiere, on December 1910, proved one of the most spectacular events in the annals of theatre. Opera historian, Julian Budden recounts, “The house was packed with notables of every variety–diplomats, generals, leaders of high society, and such artists of eminence as happened to be in the city, among them the pianist Josef Hoffmann, and the composer Humperdinck.  The “Sun” summed up the occasion with the banner headline, ‘GOLDEN WEST IN OPERA DRAWS GOLD FROM EAST’. The performance itself had every appearance of an uncontested triumph:  47 curtain calls and a silver wreath presented to Puccini by Gatti-Casazza amid loud cheers.  Next day a banquet in Puccini’s honour offered by the Vanderbilts.”

After some hiatus, Puccini had given up the idea of working on a “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and instead took on the idea of Belasco’s play, however you will note that the opera sounds remotely different than his earlier works.  In Fanciulla, Puccini not only expands his melodic spectrum, but the orchestra becomes much more present.  Typical of him, as in Butterfly, Puccini adopted western melodies, traditional american songs, and even cadential phrases that mimic negro spirituals and imbedded them within the symphonic structure of the opera. Textually, he instituted a more expansive free-form style than in any of his previous works.  Here, as in Turandot, Puccini demands that his orchestra adopt the palate of the insinuated “tinta;” whether it be Chinese or Western, the orchestra in these late works is fully recognized as a character with which the voices are meant to integrate, alla Richard Strauss, where a web is woven by the presence of the voice as an instrument and the orchestra as a voice.

But, what is more, Fanciulla’s expressive text and the free manner of writing is more firmly linked to the actual inflection of Italian.  Therefore, for Fanciulla to be exciting, it requires a conductor who understands how to balance the colorito (as Puccini called it) in the orchestra, and singers who have a fervent grasp of the nuances in the Italian language (not to mention specific voice colours that are typically lugubrious and rich in the middle.  Perhaps more rhythmic than any of his other works, Fanciulla’s impetus is of “off-beats” and “accents” that create the offsetting western swagger of the Golden West.

The set of the MET’s Production

 

Tonight’s production, which remounts the opera for the 100th Anniversary of the actual premiere on Dec. 10, was well-done, but unfortunately lacked in several of Puccini’s absolutes.  Let’s not forget, HE was there and highly involved in the production in 1910.  Nicola Luisotti, who is well-respected as the newest conductor of Italian productions at the MET, opened with what should be an Allegro ma non troppo in an excited and explosive manner, if not too fast.  It is here at the opening of Puccini’s work that one must linger in the sonorities that he created because of his continual indication that the “Tinta” was initially created by the orchestra and then expanded throughout his web of sound.  If one glosses over these rich chords, it is difficult to achieve the sort of affect Puccini demanded.  For the most part, he kept the orchestra nicely balanced although it sometimes lacked in the lower resonances, which are the scaffolding on which Puccini built so many magnificent moments. Puccini’s orchestral texture ought to be thought of as vertical–that is, stemming from from what might be called “earthly” sonorities (the low resonances of the orchestra), the “middle hemisphere” (where the voice and the motives circulate), and the “ethereal” (the highest sonorities of the orchestra, and often of the soprano).  In order to attain the Puccinian palate, these must be balanced in accordance with the text and emotion that is occurring.  Although Luisotti did a fine job of keeping everything moving and exciting, Puccini’s works stem from a period of opera that requires one to look at “everything” intrinsically.

Maestro Nicola Luisotti

In the opening scene with the miners, the orchestra was slightly overbearing and more attention could have been paid  to the offbeats that require that extra bit of accent to make the atmosphere more authentically western. Although the voices were quite nice, and the scene was well produced, the conversation between the miners sounded too technical and off the page rather than naturally spoken with Italian inflection.  Puccini was a master at capturing the inflection of naturalized text in a rhythm, and so to achieve authenticity or accento puro, one needs to just speak it alla Italiana.  In  this production, Marcello Giordani was the chief representative of this trait.

At the point of Minnie’s entrance, the orchestra might have been balanced toward the higher resonances, the high strings, as is a typically associated with Puccinian heroines.  Ms. Voigt’s entrance was interesting if not slightly under-pitch.  Minnie’s entrance is a difficult one and the role does take some warming up to get into, however  much can be done with Minnie’s character because she is so utterly unique in Puccini’s oeuvre; in fact, it is just as much about her personality and her text than her voice.  One reason, in particular, for which she is so beloved is because she does not die. She is energetic and brilliant and a woman of strength.  Ms. Voigt, while attempting to deal with the difficulties of the music, lacked some of this necessary brilliance initially, although she warmed up to some extremely expressive moments in ACT II.  Her Laggiù nel Soledad was pretty, but too careful in terms of the text.  Her end to the ACT II poker game was most definitely her best singing of the evening, expressive and dramatic.

Deborah Voigt

 

Voigt’s colleague, Mr. Giordani sang with more authentic Italian inflection and exhibited several magnificent moments in the upper tessitura, however, Dick Johnson sits lower than some tenor roles and so the middle voice was slightly pushed this evening.  His singing of “No, Minnie, non piangete” was certainly his best singing of the evening, heartfelt and passionate.  This scene is my favourite because of the impending transfer of Johnson’s melody to the concert master.  Here, Puccini’s masterful chord transitions, as he develops the melody, are illuminating and vibrant.  Luisotti might have taken the end of this section with a stronger focus in the violins.

Giordani

 

All in all, the production was good but not spectacular.  For the 100th anniversary, I feel that the MET ought to have gone out on a limb and presented something more extravagant with this production, especially since the premiere was such a monumental and historical event.  Nevertheless, those who sit in the theatre on December 10, and those who listen to the radio should recall the great man who sat in the old-Met and listened to his music performed in America.  What a triumph for the MET and for Puccini, who with Minnie (the unconquerable) had overcome the most serious and difficult moments of his life.  She is his legacy of truth and those who sing her ought to be blessed with the knowledge that Minnie, above all his heroines, is superlative.

 

©Mary-Lou Vetere, 2010

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