05 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (E.-M. Westbroek, C. Ventre, A. Holland; Oehms Classics OC 945)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (Oehms Classics OC 945)

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del WestEva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie), Carlo Ventre (Dick Johnson), Ashley Holland (Jack Rance), Peter Marsh (Nick), Alfred Reiter (Ashby), Simon Bailey (Sonora), Michael McCown (Trin), Bálint Szabó (Sid), Sungkon Kim (Bello), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Harry), Beau Gibson (Joe), Nathaniel Webster (Happy), Björn Bürger (Larkens), Carlos Krause (Billy Jackrabbit), Elisabeth Hornung (Wowkle), Franz Mayer (Jake Wallace), Cheol Kang (José Castro), Francisco Brito (Pony Express rider); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt, Germany, in May and June 2013; Oehms Classics OC 945; 2CD, 130:42; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

La fanciulla del West is the score that should silence doubts about Giacomo Puccini’s importance as a composer of opera. At the time of its première at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1910, when the Minnie of Emmy Destinn, the Johnson of Enrico Caruso, and the Rance of Pasquale Amato tangled under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, the quality of the music was evident, an anonymous New York critic writing of the opera after its first performance that ‘the first act is the best Puccini ever wrote’ and the second ‘a more passionate evolution of the musical ideas of the first.’ In praising the indefatigable eloquence of Destinn’s performance, however, the same writer disclosed the debacle that has plagued La fanciulla del West in the century since she first tended the emotional needs of the denizens of the Polka Saloon: at the center of a formidably demanding score stands Minnie, whose music is ‘extremely difficult, so much of it very high with long sustained notes and little support from the orchestra.’ At first acquaintance, Minnie seems a world apart from the emblematic ‘piccole donne’ of most of Puccini’s operas, but had Mimì, Tosca, or Liù survived her own circumstances and immigrated to Gold Rush-era California might she not have evolved into the hardship-toughened Minnie? There are also elements of Greek and even Wagnerian dramas in La fanciulla del West, Minnie emerging as an Iphigenia or a Brünnhilde whose symbolic sacrifice enables literal and figurative redemption. At its core, La fanciulla del West is Puccini’s treatise on loneliness, and in it he insightfully explores the notion that the deprivation of Manon Lescaut, the jealousy of La bohème, and the lust of Tosca pale in comparison with the loneliness of La fanciulla del West as impetus for desperation. Ever a savvy man of the theatre, Puccini knew that melodic fecundity alone was inadequate to express the complex emotions of La fanciulla del West, not least because the fates of every major and minor character in the opera are intertwined and interdependent as in none of the composer’s other operas, so he filled the pages of his setting of David Belasco’s Girl of the Golden West with music that throbs with Italianate Romanticism translated into the tonal language of the Twentieth Century. The novelty of La fanciulla del West also translates into vocal demands that have virtually made the piece an operatic ghost town. Even when its musical edifices are found in varying states of dilapidation, La fanciulla del West offers vistas of one of the finest composers of opera at his best.

Turandot is perhaps Puccini’s most imaginatively-orchestrated score, but La fanciulla del West is unquestionably his most progressive, musically advanced opera. Led by the remarkably versatile and unfailingly musical Sebastian Weigle, the Oper Frankfurt forces involved in the production that produced this recording exhibit awareness of the importance of the music before them. Whatever technical niceties it entails, the ‘Oper Frankfurt Recording System’ employed by Oehms Classics for this recording and other productions recorded for commercial release is a model that should be studied and replicated by other venues and labels endeavoring to record opera in performance. Produced by Christian Wilde, Felix Dreher, and Peter Tobiasch, this recording places Puccini’s score in an acoustical atmosphere in which the natural balance between stage and pit is effectively equalized. In general, stage noises contribute to rather than detracting from the dramatic vitality of the performance, and distractions by the audience are laudably few. Perspectives are occasionally imperfect, an inevitable complication of recording staged productions, but only the too-distant placement of the off-stage beginning of Jake Wallace’s song is truly regrettable. The Chor der Oper Frankfurt choristers are challenged but never defeated by Puccini’s formidable demands, and the gusto that they convey in their singing is bracing. The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester’s experience in Wagner repertory—including a compelling and superbly-recorded Ring des Nibelungen also available from Oehms—enables the instrumentalists’ precise but impassioned performance of Puccini’s score. Maestro Weigle maintains rhythmic sharpness in the music’s many changes of mood, and his shaping of lyrical episodes closely follows the needs of the principal singers. The acquaintance of Oper Frankfurt’s personnel with Twentieth-Century music is also apparent in their collective realization of the striking modernity of La fanciulla del West: while the post-Impressionistic, Stravinskian elements of Puccini’s music are restrained in many performances, Maestro Weigle and the orchestra revel in them in this account of the opera. The slight deficiencies in authentic Italianate morbidezza are mitigated by the uncommon precision of the orchestral playing and the vigor of Maestro Weigle’s conducting. This is an age in which sloppy playing by opera house pit orchestras is no longer accepted as a necessary evil, but the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester musicians could give their counterparts in some of the world’s most prestigious pits lessons in adaptability and cooperation.

Puccini succeeded in La fanciulla del West as in none of his other operas at creating a cast in which every character, major and minor, has a defined place in the drama and is musically three-dimensional. Minnie, Johnson, and Rance are the truly significant players, of course, but the inhabitants of the mining town in which their destinies intersect provide far more than the ‘local color’ at which Puccini was expert; or, that is, there are opportunities for the singers in secondary rôles to create memorable characters. Few performances seize those opportunities as impressively as this one, in which the deep roster of Oper Frankfurt provides an ensemble of artists who are dedicated to portraying individuals within Puccini’s thriving community of disenfranchised miners. In many performances, Wowkle seems little more than a second-string Suzuki, but mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Hornung gives her tenderness and tenacity, singing strongly. The smarmy insouciance of the slightly dangerous Sid courses through the sinewy singing of bass Bálint Szabó, and Peter Marsh, Alfred Reiter, Simon Bailey, Michael McCown, Sungkon Kim, Hans-Jürgen Lazar, and Nathaniel Webster portray Nick, Ashby, Sonora, Trin, Bello, Harry, and Happy with distinctive quirks, all realized with firm, steady-toned singing. Carlos Krause’s Billy Jackrabbit is an intriguing figure, and Cheol Kang and Francisco Brito make the most of their appearances as José Castro and the Pony Express rider. Franz Mayer’s singing of Jake Wallace’s nostalgic song is beautiful and all the more effective for being truly sung rather than crooned. Particularly impressive is tenor Beau Gibson’s golden-toned Joe, but the uniformly high quality of the performances—not just the singing—of all of the supporting cast greatly enriches this recording.

In demand throughout the world for a wide variety of rôles ranging from the dramatic bel canto of Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to the stark modernity of Doktor Schön in Alban Berg’s Lulu, British baritone Ashley Holland reveals in his performance of Jake Rance a dark-hued, slightly throaty voice of considerable authority and stamina—what, in the context of Puccini repertoire, might be termed an ideal ‘Scarpia voice.’ Puccini can rightly be accused of having underserved the dastardly Sheriff in La fanciulla del West, Rance being granted few moments to do more than bawl and bray threateningly. There is great affection in Rance’s interactions with Minnie in Act One, however, not least in ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and Mr. Holland digs deeply into the underlying psychology that shapes Rance’s personality and inspires his actions. This Rance’s desire for Minnie is the need of a man crippled in his prime by loneliness rather than lust. Unlike many Rances, the man portrayed by Mr. Holland accepts his loss of Minnie with a modicum of the dignity of a trickster admitting that he has been tricked. Still, Mr. Holland’s singing lacks none of the snarling brawn of traditional Rances, and even without the benefit of seeing his performance his persona displays welcome components of a larger-than-life, power-mongering Western lawman. Vocally, Mr. Holland encounters little trouble with Rance’s music, which is a remarkable feat in its own right, but the greatest accomplishment of his performance is the degree to which he matches his vocal mastery with an atypically insightful portrait of one of Puccini’s most chameleonic characters.

Ramerrez the Mexican bandito is Puccini’s most enigmatic tenor hero—and not merely because he spends much of the opera masquerading as Dick Johnson. Like Rance’s, his infatuation with Minnie is motivated as much by a quest for deliverance from the solitude of his life as by romantic love, but he has all the trappings of a traditional operatic lover from the start. In this performance, Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre enacts the rôle with imagination and brute strength. The grainy, somewhat monochromatic timbre of his voice sets him apart from his first entrance, and he is consistently convincing as a gregarious Latino suitor. In the love duet that ends Act One, Mr. Ventre sings expansively, his phrasing gaining ardor as Johnson’s affection for Minnie develops and the tessitura of his music rises. Johnson’s music lacks the lyrical effusions of Puccini’s other tenor heroes, but the level of musical distinction is very high. Mr. Ventre’s singing in Act Two is thrilling, musically and dramatically, and the raw intensity of his vocal delivery does not impede a broad eloquence. He is a coarse-mannered bandito to the life, but even his vocal mannerisms soften when he is in Minnie’s presence. In ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,’ Johnson’s one true aria, Mr. Ventre tempers the despondence of a man about to die with an almost visionary serenity born of sparing Minnie the pain of his real fate. Solely on vocal terms, Mr. Ventre cannot compete with the burliness of Mario del Monaco, the resilience of Richard Tucker, or the refulgence of Franco Corelli, but his success as Johnson on this recording is first-rate. More than almost any other Johnson heard in recent seasons, Mr. Ventre manages to generate genuine vocal and dramatic presence rather than merely surviving the music.

Like her sisters in the Puccini repertoire, in many performances Minnie can become a cliché, in her case the hard-as-nails frontier lass with a heart of gold. This is a valid interpretation of the rôle, but a thoughtful singing actress can broaden the dimensions of the woman by exploring nuances of her character. By singing Minnie, the spirited Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek treads on sacred ground. The ranks of great Minnies are very sparse: the vocal demands of the part require a voice, poised somewhere between a Tosca and a Turandot, that is as rare as the teenager with the voice of Isolde that Richard Strauss wanted for his Salome. Historically, some of the finest Minnies—singers like Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, and Marie Collier—have been those who excelled in the music despite rather than because of their natural vocal suitability for the rôle. Having triumphed in parts as diverse as the title rôle in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and Sieglide in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Ms. Westbroek brings to this performance the same combination of familiarities with Classical, Wagnerian, and Twentieth-Century repertoires that facilitates the fantastic performance by the orchestra. In her scenes with the miners in Act One, it is obvious that this Minnie loves and cherishes them like brothers, and even when her voice is under greatest stress Ms. Westbroek exudes affection and uncomplicated sincerity. This is a Minnie who understands Rance: she identifies with his isolation rather than pitying or feeling threatened by him. His pursuit of Johnson is a betrayal of their bond, and the inwardness of Ms. Westbroek’s performance suggests that this is the stimulus for Minnie’s eventual duplicity. Its tessitura and fearsomely exposed top C make ‘Laggiù nel Soledad,’ Minnie’s aria in Act One, one of the greatest challenges in the soprano repertoire, and Ms. Westbroek responds with focused, unhesitant singing, rising to a bright, secure top C that crowns an excellent account of the aria. When she joins Johnson in the love duet, one more reminiscent of that in Act One of Verdi’s Otello than those in Puccini’s other operas, Minnie’s tessitura becomes even more daunting, and Ms. Westbroek’s performance soars. Here and in the subsequent acts, there are moments of strain, but Ms. Westbroek is a shrewd artist who puts these to telling dramatic use. There is never any doubt about who will prevail in the fateful poker game, but Ms. Westbroek’s vocal radiance makes the moment of her victory uniquely cathartic. In Act Three, when Minnie appeals to the miners she loves on behalf of the bandit who has stolen her heart, Ms. Westbroek’s voice glows with purity, and she rides the crests of Puccini’s orchestrations with consummate flair. There is more steel than silk in Ms. Westbroek’s voice, but she sings beautifully and—more importantly—sensuously as Minnie, ultimately portraying a woman with the wild determination of Brünnhilde and the demure delicacy of Mimì.

The sad truth of the recent history of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is that few performances have deserved the expense of their staging, and even fewer have offered the public or the composer the musical and dramatic excellence that the score merits. Compiling a recording from what was surely an admirable production of the opera, Oehms’ engineers provide the listener with a performance of La fanciulla del West that amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. Those parts, headed by the skilled Minnie of Eva-Maria Westbroek, are refreshingly adept in a score in which basic competence has become exceptional. This performance says to the Twenty-First Century that Puccini, so maligned by many musicologists in the second half of the previous century, was an important composer and that La fanciulla del West is one of the greatest artistic achievements of his career.

Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST at the MET in 1910, with Enrico Caruso (Johnson), Emmy Destinn (Minnie), and Pasquale Amato (Rance) [Photo by White Studio, © the Metropolitan Opera] Good day for a hanging: Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in its première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with, from left to right, Enrico Caruso as Johnson (strung up under the tree), Emmy Destinn as Minnie, and Pasquale Amato as Rance [Photo by White Studio, © the Metropolitan Opera]