“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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The Golden Girl Turns 100, But What Would Puccini Think?

100 years ago, David Belasco’s popular play, “The Girl of the Golden West” premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Set to music by Puccini and conducted by Arturo Toscanini, the premiere of Fanciulla del West inspired the meeting of American “Cowboy” culture with the passionate European musical palate.  Fanciulla is an opera about redemption, about love, and contrary to popular opinion (as of late) about singing.  The singers who performed the opera at the Met 100 years ago are historically connected to the work, not just because they sang it, but because Puccini wrote the roles of Minnie, Jack Rance, and Dick Johnson especially for them.  Those singers were Emmy Destinn, Pasquale Amato, and Enrico Caruso.

The original Minnie, Emmy Destinn

Therefore, in order to produce an accurate staging of Fanciulla, at least an historical one, it is relevant to know what those singer’s voices were, especially since the composer created the roles specifically for them.  Enrico Caruso’s voice really requires no explanation, for those of us who are opera afficionadi; Pasquale Amato and Emmy Destinn, however, prove interesting.

Baritone, Pasquale Amato

Amato was born in Napoli in 1878 and was for all intents and purposes and Italian operatic baritone.  He was popular in Italy, but achieved the majority of his success in New York City, where he was employed at the Metropolitan opera from 1908 until 1921. His teacher, Beniamino Carelli also taught Enrico Caruso and so they shared similar aesthetic qualities in singing.  Interestingly, the cast of Caruso, Amato, and Destinn performed regularly together for the unity and homogeneity of their voices. His voice according according to Michael Scott in “The Record of Singing,” had a “ringing vibrant tone that could not be confused with that of any other baritone. He possessed plenty of carrying power, masterful phrasing and cantabile.” He died in Queens, N.Y. on August 12, 1942.

Destinn, on the other hand, was also known as Ema Destinnová, who was born in 1878 and known as a Czech operatic soprano.  She was well known to sing Italian opera in Dresden, Prague, and Berlin, and was the original Salome in Richard Strauss’ Salome.  She debuted at the Met in Verdi’s Aida in 1908.  While she was successful in lighter Wagnerian roles, her voice was best suited to the lyrical Italian repertoire.  Her career was halted during World War 1, when she returned to her homeland whereupon her passport was revoked.  She returned to the Met in 1919 but had by then been replaced by a new generation of singers.  The voice was versatile and powerful of long cantabile lines.

What is interesting in this upcoming anniversary of Fanciulla is that the voices chosen to sing do not meld like those that were meant to perform the role.  As of now, the Met has cast Deborah Voigt as Minnie, Marcello Giordani as Dick Johnson, and Juha Uusitalo as Jack Rance.  The opera will be conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti.  Although these singers are reputable and well known for many wonderful performances, as a historian this conglomeration of singers is a little off-putting, especially since the Puccinian tinta is one that contributes to the opera’s authenticity.  Unfortunately, this season, the result of several miscast operas has produced the very effect that I hope the Met will try to avoid in the future.  Casting German voices in Italian repertoire and vice-versa actually mars authenticity and that means that the performance fails to create an historically accurate presentation.  Now, of course, we aren’t going to find another Caruso to sing Johnson; even if Mr. Giordani has a viable instrument, it is rather the combination of voices and the necessity for accento puro that will affect this production of Fanciulla if it isn’t properly coached.  Since this is the 100th year anniversary of an opera that is beloved to historians, opera lovers, and singers alike, it is my hope that the Met will view these important historical revivals as they are meant to be viewed.  How about considering what the composer asked for and decided was right?  


This week on Sirius/XM Radio from the Metropolitan Opera

Monday, Feb. 1, 8pm:  Carmen

Olga Borodina

ConductorAlain Altinoglu
MicaelaJennifer Black
CarmenOlga Borodina
Don JoséBrandon Jovanovich
EscamilloMariusz Kwiecien

Production: Richard Eyre
Set & Costume Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon

Tues. Feb. 2, 8pm:  Simon Boccanegra

Marcello Giordani

Sirius/XM Radio Broadcast

ConductorJames Levine
AmeliaAdrianne Pieczonka
GabrieleMarcello Giordani
SimonPlácido Domingo
FiescoJames Morris

Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Set & Costume Designer: Michael Scott

Thur. Feb. 4, 8pm:  Ariadne auf Naxos

Sarah Connolly

Live on MET RADIO/Real Player/Sirius/XM Radio

ConductorKirill Petrenko
AriadneNina Stemme
ZerbinettaKathleen Kim
ComposerSarah Connolly
BacchusLance Ryan
Music MasterJochen Schmeckenbecher

Production: Elijah Moshinsky
Set & Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler

Sat. Feb. 6, 1pm: Simon Boccanegra

Sirius/XM Radio Broadcast/Live on HD Telecast

ConductorJames Levine
AmeliaAdrianne Pieczonka
GabrieleMarcello Giordani
SimonPlácido Domingo
FiescoJames Morris

Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Set & Costume Designer: Michael Scott

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times take Placido to task

Domingo as Simone

The critical world is really taking on a life of its own these days, especially where opera is concerned.  Just yesterday, I was immersed in very early critical reviews that were written in Milan during the 1850s and 60s–yes, Verdi’s time–and I couldn’t help but admire the manner in which these critics understood, spoke, and wrote about opera.  Their reviews left one aching to hear or see the work discussed, or rightly provided critical dialogue that was not invasive but critical in a musical sense, where aesthetics, style, genre, and national identity were concerned.  Newspapers like the Corriere della Sera, with its section on “spettacoli” or Il Giornale della Societa del Quartetto, among others, are so enlightened that they have remained in circulation until today.

The birth of music criticism, as we know it, actually began with Schumann and Berlioz, who felt that music could and should be discussed openly, critically, and that a critic must learn how to accurately describe what music is in words, a difficult task then and now.  This last week, two critics have followed one another’s ideas and while the main focus of their articles is Mr. Domingo, they really provided no criticism on the music, as it were.  I have provided a link to Anne Midgette’s article, that started quite a ruckus where Mr. Domingo is concerned.  And today, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times provided a musical review that left much to be desired.

What ever happened to talking about voices and singers with intelligence about aesthetics, fach, and historical truth?  It is not just about what one hears and whether it’s good or not, but how what we present today remains authentic, true, and accurate to the composers wishes.  Whether or not Mr. Domingo sings Baritone or Tenor is not what should be being discussed but, rather, was he true to the style and did he sing aesthetically correct.  Did the other performers?  Moreover, I find it more than farcical that the words “a real Verdian voice” are being thrown around when, in fact, no one has any idea what a Verdian voice is, was, or is supposed to be. Is it enough for a singer’s voice to simply move swiftly through notes but sing completely without aesthetic understanding of this style and be called “Verdian?”  I guess nowadays this is acceptable or it wouldn’t be at the Met, but it is not acceptable for me and certainly not for those who have studied the historical properties of this man’s music.  Let me pose my point in a question.  Would you perform in a modern string quartet and use Baroque stylization and perform on a Viola da Gamba?  That’s exactly what is happening here and yet…it continues to happen.  To me, this question is more important than whether Mr. Giordani’s voice “throbs” or not. In fact, if we were being true critics we would be asking whether he was able to present a viable, historical, and believable performance as his character in the style of Verdian singing.  While I withhold my own opinion on this matter, for now, I have chosen to present Ms. Midgette and Mr. Tommasini’s reviews.  You forge your own opinion.

Anne Midgette from the Washington Post

MUSIC REVIEW | ‘SIMON BOCCANEGRA’

For Verdi, Masquerading as a Baritone

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

In 1959, when he was 18, Plácido Domingo auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City as a baritone. The jury was impressed but told Mr. Domingo that he was really a tenor. Two years later he sang his first lead tenor role, Alfredo in Verdi’s “Traviata” in Monterrey. And so began one of the great tenor careers in opera history.

On Monday, three days before turning 69, Mr. Domingo returned to his vocal roots. For the first time at the Metropolitan Opera he sang a baritone role, the title character in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” Some of his tougher critics would say that Mr. Domingo has been a quasi baritone for years, since he has increasingly asked conductors to transpose parts of the tenor roles he sings down a step or two.

But he sounded liberated as Boccanegra, a tormented doge in 14th-century Genoa. At times his voice had a worn cast. And when he dipped into the lower baritone register, he had to fortify his sound with chesty, sometimes leathery power. Still, this was some of his freshest singing in years.

Maybe taking on Boccanegra is a self-indulgent exercise for Mr. Domingo at this stage of his career. I almost hesitate to praise him, since I do not want him to get ideas. Right now the two companies he is running — the Los Angeles Opera and the Washington National Opera — are struggling financially. So he has big responsibilities.

That said, he earned an enormous ovation on Monday night. Over the last decade, when a role took him to the upper register of his tenor voice, he often sounded cautious and calculating. But as Boccanegra, he could not wait, it seemed, for the line to soar into the baritone’s high register, now his comfort zone.

Yet that auditioning committee of 1959 was right: Mr. Domingo was a tenor. Whether a singer is a tenor or a baritone is not just a matter of range. The coloring and character of a voice also identifies its type. There have long been dusky, baritonal qualities to Mr. Domingo’s singing, but the overall colorings and ping in his sound were those of a tenor.

Inevitably, he made Boccanegra seem like a tenor role. The long scene in which Boccanegra discovers that Maria, who goes by the name Amelia Grimaldi (don’t ask), is his long-lost illegitimate daughter, did not have the contrast of baritone and soprano colorings that Verdi intended. Still, Mr. Domingo brought vocal charisma, dramatic dignity and a lifetime of experience to his portrayal. Purists will complain, but Mr. Domingo’s performance was an intriguing experiment.

A week earlier Mr. Domingo was in the pit at the Met to conduct the first performance of Verdi’s “Stiffelio” this season, a run that continues. He did an able job. But what a difference to hear a similarly complex Verdi score withJames Levine in the pit. Mr. Levine, who conducted on Monday night, has often spoken of how much he reveres this score, and his respect came through in the somberly beautiful, nuanced playing he drew from the orchestra.

“Simon Boccanegra” is a hybrid in the Verdi canon. It was a flop at its premiere in 1857 in Venice. Almost a quarter-century later, in 1881, Verdi extensively revised the score, which combines elements of impassioned middle-period and magisterial mature Verdi.

The plot, however, is one of the most convoluted in opera. Verdi was drawn to the story because it allowed him to portray an imperfect man, once a ruthless pirate, who is conscripted into a leadership role for which he feels unfit, yet who tries to reconcile the conflicts between the plebeian commoners and the aristocracy; a man who made a mess of his personal life but eventually does right by his daughter. But do not try to untangle the strands of the plots and the multiple identities of the characters.

As Maria/Amelia, the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was splendid, singing with clear, shimmering, pitch-perfect sound and lovely phrasing. The tenor Marcello Giordani can be a sloppy singer. But the role of Gabriele Adorno, the hotheaded aristocrat who loves Maria, suits him, and he sang with ardor and big, throbbing top notes.

The bass-baritone James Morris’s voice is weather-beaten these days. But as Fiesco, Maria’s father, he conveyed grave dignity and moving authority. Paolo, the villain (that much seems clear), was the bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi, whose strong voice flagged as the night went on.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s tastefully grand production was introduced in 1995, when Mr. Domingo sang the tenor role of Gabriele. Even with all his drive to notch records in the opera annals, Mr. Domingo could not have imagined then that he would be singing the title role at 69.

Guleghina cancels and Lise Lindstrom makes Met debut as “Turandot”

Lise LindstromSoprano, Lise Lindstrom

The old proverbial concept of “being in the right place at the right time” is still working wonders for singers.  On October 28th, the Met’s resident soprano, Maria Guleghina unexpectedly cancelled due to illness, leaving B-Cast soprano Lise Lindstrom to make her debut several days earlier. In this interesting turn of events, Lindstrom solidified her place at the Met and likely caused some uneasiness for Guleghina’s future performances.

Lindstrom’s voice is a sharp, crystalline laser at the top, evoking memories of Nilsson, even if her middle and lower voice leave something to be desired.  She was accurate in Puccinian aesthetics if not a little stilted in her Italian pronunciation.  Some reviewers seem to be more concerned about the size of Lindstrom’s voice, but I say, size doesn’t really matter…it’s whether or not you can evoke something that slaps the audience emotionally in the face.  While the role of Turandot seems to me to be the wrong direction for Guleghina to take at this point in her career, she is going to have to pull out all of the stops in order to compete with Lindstrom’s new found adoring public.

Also giving an acceptable performance was Russian soprano, Marina Poplovskaya, as Liù.  The voice has a lovely, warm tone to it and pronounced beauty, however, Poplovskaya didn’t use her innately beautiful voice to its potential.  Although the audience responded graciously to her singing, Liù’s arias, which are authentic examples of Puccini’s “povera faccia melody” were lacking in emotional depth.

For me, the success of the night was resident tenor, Marcello Giordani, who sang with true Italianante impetus and remained true to Puccini’s aesthetic.  His understanding of the “punto di linea” was evident in every nuance.  Although his voice often displays its most beautiful colore bruciato in the higher tessitura, Mr. Giordani was expressive and authentic in his approach.  The Nessun Dorma, which is the key portal to Puccini’s grandeur, was sung eloquently, passionately, and with an exquisite penultimate note, held as Puccini intended it.  Many tenors extend the note when, in fact, Puccini shunned any lengthening of these notes at the end of the aria. Had he wanted to write a long note, he would have. This shows that Mr. Giordani is more devoted to accuracy than he is centered on showing off his abilities. Bravo Marcello!!!

Marcello Giordani

All in all, this performance of Turandot was much more successful than opening night’s “Tosca.”  What was more interesting was Peter Gelb’s interview during the intermission in which he suggested that they were “simply trying to give the audience something they could relate to.”  I’m all for anachronistic presentation, but bringing the past into the present doesn’t always mean that the audience wants something different, or that they can’t relate to something from the past.  After all, if opera isn’t a historical art, then what is it?  The very vocal audience at the Met, with someone even yelling out “Viva Puccini” after Giordani’s Nessun Dorma, are telling directors and producers exactly what they want.  VIVA IL POPOLO!!!!