The Metropolitan Opera has revived Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, in the 1991 production by Giancarlo del Monaco (son of the late, great tenor Mario). A tale of California during the Gold Rush, this is the most American of Puccini’s operas.
Well, what other “American” operas are there of Puccini? Madama Butterfly certainly counts, with the perfidious Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. And the last act of Manon Lescaut is set in the “Louisiana desert.”
Puccini, that magician, makes Butterfly sound Japanesey. And he makes La fanciulla sound American-ish, in addition to lushly Italian. How does he do it? He was a magician, and a genius (about which, more later).
At the Met on Monday night, Marco Armiliato led in the pit. His conducting reflected experience, talent, confidence, and love—love of the score. At least, it sure sounded like it. And he communicated what I sensed as his love to the orchestra and other forces. The orchestra played with extraordinary tenderness, and extraordinary sweep. The violins, in particular, were at the top of their game, not phoning it in.
Minnie is so demanding as to be punishing. And our soprano on Monday night, Eva-Maria Westbroek, served her well.
Also, the opera was never for one second dull. Let me stress this: it was never—not for a measure—dull. This is very unusual, let me tell you (for any night at the opera). “Dullness is the cardinal sin of performance,” said Liszt.
The title role, Minnie—La Fanciulla, the Golden Girl—is a notorious voice-wrecker of a role. It wrecked Leontyne Price for a while (though you couldn’t keep her down). Minnie is so demanding as to be punishing. And our soprano on Monday night, Eva-Maria Westbroek, served her well. She was both lyrical and powerful, which is the right combination. Her high C at the end of her aria was a mile low. She was low on other high notes as well. But this was unimportant, in light of all that she was delivering.
I worried for her, though. As she sang Minnie, I could practically see, or hear, years being taken off her career. Sopranos who brave Minnie should get some kind of medal.
As her last name tells you, Eva-Maria Westbroek is Dutch, and the Dutch are the tallest people in the world—they passed certain East Africans a few years ago. Westbroek towered, and towered beautifully, over the men on the stage.
One of those men was Yusif Eyvazov, the tenor singing Dick Johnson (who in reality is the repentant bandit Ramerrez). Is Eva-Maria used to bending down to kiss men? Probably. Anyway, Eyvazov is from Azerbaijan and the husband of Anna Netrebko, the great Russian soprano. Eyvazov did not always sing prettily—but he always sang well, and ringingly. He delivered the dramatic lyricism, or lyric dramaticism, that is required for the role. The proof was in the brief, masterly aria “Ch’ella mi creda.” (The aria has to be brief, because Ramerrez’s would-be hangers give him only a minute to talk.)
If anyone suspected that Yusif Eyvazov was merely Mr. Netrebko, those suspicions were abolished on Monday night.
Zeljko Lucic, the veteran Serb, did what he routinely does: portray a baritone villain with complete professionalism. This time, the villain was Jack Rance, the sheriff. Lucic was accurate, burnished, and canny. Manly, too.
In fact, La fanciulla del West is an opera shot through with testosterone, with all those miners—the Golden Girl is virtually the only girl—and the men of the Met were very well prepared and very effective. As a rule, they sang both robustly and beautifully, which Puccini wants.
Standing out was a tenor named Alok Kumar, who had just a line or two to sing—but sang them with golden beauty. Having never heard of him, I looked him up, and rubbed my eyes to find this: “Mr. Kumar is a member of the state bars of Massachusetts and New York and maintains a law practice.” An Indian-American friend of mine remarked, “He probably got the law degree to please the parents who would worry he’d starve.” Based on the voice alone, Mr. Kumar could not starve, I wouldn’t think.
La fanciulla is an unusual opera in that it has the shape and feel of a tragedy but ends happily. At the Met, the friend sitting next to me commented, “It ended so nicely”—the way an audience member wants (including me). The Met’s current stage director, Gregory Keller, does something I had never seen before (that I can remember). As Minnie and Ramerrez walk off together to a new life, Keller has Rance point a gun at the couple—and then at himself. Will he pull the trigger? We are left to wonder.
The Met audience gave the performance a warm response. But it was a sparse audience. This is an unusual thing for me to note, because I am not one to worry about, much less harp on, audience size. I hate “the tyranny of the full house,” to use a phrase I learned from Robert Harth, the late executive director of Carnegie Hall. But I must say, nights such as Monday make me worry a bit.
In the audience, whatever its size, was Jonas Kaufmann, the famous German tenor, who had sung a concert at Carnegie on Friday night. As he walked up the aisle at the first intermission, he whistled a Fanciulla tune (well).
There is much beautiful music in Fanciulla—when Andrew Lloyd-Webber borrowed from it, for his Phantom of the Opera, he borrowed wisely—and it also has an intelligent design. La fanciulla may not be among Puccini’s best operas, but, if you were a composer, wouldn’t you like Fanciulla in your second rank?
Why do people sneer at Puccini? (Middlebrows, in particular, are guilty of this. Experts and masses know better.) I once put this question to Lorin Maazel, who answered, “Envy.” Yeah. That’ll do for now, for a one-word answer.