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For a Golden Centennial a Triumphant Met Debut

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
12/06/2010 -  and December 10, 14, 18, 22, 27, 30, 2010, January 3*, 8, 2011
Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West
Deborah Voigt/Elisabete Matos*(Minnie), Marcello Giordani*/Carl Tanner (Dick Johnson), Lucio Gallo (Jack Rance), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Wowkle), Tony Stevenson (Nick), Hugo Vera (Trin), Adam Laurence Herskowitz (Harry), Michael Forest (Joe), Edward Mout (Pony Express Rider), Dwayne Croft (Sonora), Trevor Scheunemann (Sid), Richard Bernstein (Bello), David Crawford (Happy), Edward Parks (Larkens), Keith Miller (Ashby), Oren Gradus (Jake Wallace), Philip Cokorinos (Billy Jackrabbit), Jeff Mattsey (José Castro)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)
Giancarlo Del Monaco (Production), Michael Scott (Set and Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer)

(© Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera)

On 10 December 1910, an opera by a contemporary composer, had its world premiere at the 27 year-old Metropolitan Opera House. That composer was Giacomo Puccini. While the premiere of Fanciulla occurred at the old Met on 39th street, and not at the new and present incarnation which opened in September of 1966, the immediacy of having the last great composer of Italian opera on the scene still feels rather extraordinary. And he did far more than turn up for the accolades; he actually worked with the singers. And what singers they were! The three principals were Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn, and Pasquale Amato. In the pit was none other than Arturo Toscannini. David Belasco, the author of The Girl of the Golden West, the play upon which the opera was based, was the director and designer of the original production. The audience loved the opera and gave the performers and Puccini an extraordinary number of curtain calls.

Fanciulla was performed 11 times in the ’10-’11 season with a total of 24 performances through 1914. A new production mounted in 1929 ran for 14 performances through 1931. It then disappeared from the Met stage for thirty years, reappearing in 1961 and remaining in the repertoire through 1970. Then it vanished again until the current production marked the Met debut of designer Giancarlo Del Monaco in 1991. A DVD is available with the original cast – Barbara Daniels, Plácido Domingo, and Sherrill Milnes. The production has the rough-hewn feel of the set of an old western. Minnie’s bar is a warm and homey refuge from the hard life of the miners, presented in fine realistic detail without excessive clutter.

Minnie’s little house is equally cozy, another safe haven on the wild frontier. Stage effects such as the arrival of Minnie, and later Dick Johnson, on horseback, and the onset of gently falling snow flow naturally within the scene, and do not distract attention from the drama or the singing. Act III, in contrast, is stark and dreary, consisting of a dark street and ominous gallows. The cold that grips the waiting miners is palpable. In these surroundings, one has the feeling that Minnie may not win this round, and that no amount of cheating will help her here. But her profound humanity wins through again, as she appeals to the miners to whom she has given so much of herself. She wins them over one by one, until none will stand against her. As she and Johnson finally walk off together into the gloom, one senses that life may not always be easy for them, but at least they have a chance, and each other.

Although Fanciulla is back and making the rounds – San Francisco, New York and Chicago – the opera has never really caught on in the United States. This seems rather odd given that the quintessential American metaphor is the frontier. Stories and then films about the old west have always been popular. Perhaps the old west as the subject of an opera seems rather strange to American audiences, who expect opera to be foreign and exotic, rather than about our own history. This is rather the reverse of the Italian experience of opera, where the art form had a long history as an important vehicle of social change and expression of local and national identity, a role filled largely in the United States by the 20th Century medium of film.

Then there is the language issue, which manifests in two ways. It’s odd for Americans to hear cowboys singing in Italian about their homesickness for mama. The interpolated bits in English also tend to be rather jarring: Amid the Italian one hears English words – “hello” and “goodbye” for example – which predictably elicit titters from the audience.

But the main reason I think for the lack of demand for Fanciulla is that, unlike La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, it is not filled with aria set pieces; indeed there are only five arias in the opera. The most famous is probably Johnson’s “Ch'ella mì creda libero” for Dick Johnson, in the last act. Puccini’s genius is expressed in the musical tapestry he wove for the orchestra. The score is glorious – with its brilliant exploration of the orchestral palette and innovative harmonies. There was much rhythmic invention, for example, the pulse beat during the all-important poker game to determine whether Johnson lives or dies. And with Maestro Luisotti, the Met has a conductor who does full justice to both Puccini and the marvelous Met orchestra. The chorus was also magnificent, in its embodiment of so many emotions, the most touching of which was the nostalgia for home in act one, exemplified by the longing of Jake’s song “Che faranno i Vecchi miei” and the playful tenderness of the lilting waltz the miners provide for Minnie to dance with Dick Johnson.

Deborah Voigt was indisposed for this performance and the cover, Elizabeth Matos (who made her Met debut in the role on 22 December) was tapped to fill in on very short notice. In a highly demanding role, she was simply magnificent. Her voice is warm, rich and vibrant throughout her range. There were simply no weak spots. And she sang with such sweetness as Minnie revealed her loneliness and longing to a smitten Johnson. With her beautifully varied color palette, Matos reflected Minnie’s changing moods. Dramatically as well, this was a splendid portrayal of a woman warm, yet determined, and strong, yet achingly vulnerable. One highlight in an evening of highlights was her “Laggiù nel Soledad.” With her glorious top notes and gleaming tone, Matos gave us a sense that she was reliving her past and not just singing about it.

The role of Dick Johnson provided ample opportunity to Marcello Giordani to show off his large, easy, ringing top as he sang with unforced power. Subtle burnished colors and a lyrical quality in his middle voice created an air of tenderness and genuine concern for Minnie, especially in the second act. Perhaps inspired by Ms. Matos, he seemed fully invested in his character, and gave a dramatically convincing performance. Lucio Gallo created little sympathy for the unloved and unlovely character of Sheriff Jack Rance. He captured the mannerisms and frontier swagger of an old western, and sang with a hard dry tone devoid of tenderness or true passion. His desire for Minnie seemed born more of ego than from a need for love.

One of the Met’s many strengths is the current depth of its “bench.” The many cameo roles among the miners were marvelously portrayed and emerged as deftly sketched characters. Memorable performances in these comprimario parts included Dwayne Croft as a besotted Sonora, Oren Gradus as a wistful Jake, Keith Miller as a strutting Ashby, Tony Stevenson as a sympathetic loyal Nick and the ever superb and, in this case, aptly named, Richard Bernstein as Bello. Whenever he appears at the Met even in a minor role – as one of the armed men in The Magic Flute or a grave digger in Hamlet – he graces the Met stage with his presence. (Read here and here)

In all, this was a glorious night for the Met, for Puccini and for opera. The debut of Elisabete Matos was far more than the icing on the cake. She has sung Tosca and Turandot. And she has the lyrical quality for Mimi as well. She is clearly an artist of extraordinary range and accomplishment. I hope that Matos returns to the Met soon and often.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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