Monday, October 29, 2018

Puccini's 'Horse Opera'

Opera aficionados hear about Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, "The Girl of the Golden West," perhaps the only opera he composed during his most productive years that has not received the critical praise nor the huge popularity of the operas he wrote then: La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Manon Lescaut.  The three one-act operas he wrote that are often performed together as Il Trittico vary among themselves in their relative success as separate items: Il Tabarro is performed now and then, Suor Angelica less often, and Gianni Schicchi frequently, benefitting from being his only comic opera.

Despite Fanciulla's status as an oddball among his oeuvre, I'd been planning to see it for ages but somehow never got to the theatre until last Saturday when we saw it in a movie theatre as part of the Metropolitan Opera's live broadcasts in HD. True, its problem, as usually argued, remains that it lacks the many wonderful arias and duets of the popular Puccini perennials. This opera does have one major aria--a tenor one near the end--which was added by the composer at the "suggestion" of the original performing tenor at the premiere, one Enrico Caruso. Not surprisingly, it is a fine piece.

What was most surprising, however, is that the opera itself was delightful. It did gain, of course, from an excellent new Met production as well as a top-drawer cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann, probably the reigning active tenor today, and Eva-Maria Westbroek, whom I had previously seen in Wagner, notably as Sieglinde in Die Walkuire. The villain of the piece is the baritone, the sheriff, Jack Rance, played by Željko Lučić, who is a fine singer, too, whom I recall from playing the title role in the Met's "Las Vegas"-set production of Rigoletto.

The dialogue, as translated in subtitles in the theatre, was not at all embarrassing in the way operatic language often can be. The plot of this operatic western was pretty decent, too, especially in the world of opera stories, which admittedly do not set a very high standard for verisimilitude. Not only that, but the title-role soprano, Minnie, played by Miss Westbroek, did pull off the poker game scene, in which she wins by cheating, with plenty of aplomb.

There are several major supporting role and the overall chorus of miners performed well and convincingly. Kaufmann's performance was no less than superb--he possesses and knows well how to use his beautiful vocal instrument. I thought that Westbroek and Lučić also sang well and portrayed their characters well. The attractive Miss Westbroek also has the signature golden hair suggested in the English translation of the title.

So this turned out to be a satisfying operatic experience. I will confess that one cannot take the story any more seriously than Puccini's other plots and in that vein, I'm somewhat pleased that the opera actually--and rarely for opera--has a happy ending. Walking out of the theatre was definitely a pleasure because of the enjoyment engendered by the show.

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