The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Met in HD - Vocally strained lyric very qualified success to mark Met Puccini centennial - Fanciulla del West. Deborah Voigt. 08.01.11

This marked centennial of the Met world premiere obviously at the old house of Puccini’s first American premiere – La Fanciulla del West – so there was much to anticipate in marking an important anniversary for the company. It was also the first world premiere to ever be staged by the Met – starring Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, Pasquale Amato and for Ashby the wonderful Galician basso Adamo Didur. Arturo Toscanini conducted.

It was anticipated a long time ahead of time that the Met might decide upon giving Fanciulla a new production. For especially those who take Puccini seriously, it had to come as some real disappointment that instead we’d have a revival of the obviously B rated 1992 production by Giancarlo Del Monaco instead – its taking after B rated spaghetti Westerns obvious and on purpose. Even in belabored attempt made at veristic acting to still come across as cheap melodrama, characterization of especially both Minnie and the miners succumbs to being two-dimensional. Fortunately deleted from this revival was a scene during Act One between Minnie and Billy Jackrabbit that depicts Billy in manner rightly construed as racist – as small time cheat and petty thief – to Minnie’s endearing bemusement – all suitable to strike an insipidly non-threatening chord for the wonderful postmodern neo-con times in which we live today. Puccini thought better than to include this episode into the final authorized edition of Fanciulla del West. So should have the Met – but we have for sure it immortalized on a DGG dvd from off the stage at Lincoln Center. It remains the weakest both musically and histrionically of three dvd’s of this opera to star Placido Domingo as Ramerrez.

Deborah Voigt, with endearing face made an energetic, spirited Minnie – notably her saucy wit (for instance while within earshot of references made to Nina Michelterrona or of request for wisky ed aqua) and confidence in taking it on - though one lacking in ideal vocal warmth, vulnerability. Such lack was likely due to the overall ironic glibness of the stage production, but just as critically hollowness to Voigt’s middle register. In easier place such as the Bible lesson, she could caress her tone to bring out ample warmth, but response to text being sung still remained cool. Her first telling off of Rance was incisive, but also revealed strain around the break. “Laggiu nel Soledad” combined coquettish touch and endearment with glee, but with high C going flat willed as much as it was sung. Voigt’s capture of saucy wit in interaction was good with the miners, diction idiomatic, as was the floating nostalgia with which Voigt could infuse line such as ‘Quanto tempo sperai’ during first interaction with Mr. Johnson. ‘Non son che’ elicited genuine feminine modesty and warmth, but ‘Povera gente’, her next arioso, though openly impassioned, had Voigt spending on principal slightly more than on interest to pull this off. Intonation tended toward dull, not conspicuously bad, except for handful of places causing Voigt obvious strain.

Matters had to wait until Johnson entered for Voigt to secure good placement and ease to sing Act Two. She found viable charm for ‘Oh, se sapeste’, though still slightly clumsy around the break, and achieved good line through large crests through it during duet with Dick Johnson. Minnie’s laughter over perceiving she has been had not to know Johnson’s true identity by this point came across cold; all the light swoops up and down toward engagement with an increasingly tense situation on stage expressed as much (practically squealy while in extremis) bemusement in playing it out as genuine fervor. After greeting the miners warmly in the final scene, ‘Anche tu le verrai’, Minnie’s entreating on Johnsons’ behalf, started off choppy, putting completely on hold the warmth that must infuse this critical passage.

Mostly, if not quite entirely up to the demands of singing Minnie, Voigt at least showed genuine interest in the character, compromises aside, some prudence in negotiating the fierce demands that Minnie makes on the middle register of (still halfway) a lyric soprano. Nobody hardly ever heard from Barbara Daniels after she sang runs of this at the Met (and filmed it– as seen now on the Met dvd) Voigt, in however tenuously she can go about doing it has Brunnhilde’s imminent at the Met. A real object lesson is to pull out the EMI recording starring Birgit Nilsson – my favorite recording today of Nilsson singing in Italian. Note the very attentive care, prudence in taking on any of it that challenges the middle register, while not cheating Minnie of any character or warmth. This was a class act - of a quality that may unfortunately forever remain elusive to Voigt

Marcello Giordani was the ultimately too lyric Dick Johnson. Except for a strongly willed and thus stirring rendition of ‘Or son sei mesi’ in Act Two, at least until having to squeeze for its high B-Flat Intonation problems were as common for Giordani as they were for Voigt. In part for being too light for this, combined with being so focused on voice as incentive to sing Johnson, Giordani came up very short. Easier lines showed refined deference to Minnie, but more imaginative impetus to sing Johnson than vocal was lacking, that is, of a lyric attempting it. More moving might be, in stressing the lyric accents of the part, to stress the bandit’s vulnerability. ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ was thoroughly lacking in smoothness, legato, thus something in nobility got missed as well. Strength of purpose, of character was overall insufficient to make entirely convincing Johnson’s clain to have found redemption in the love of both saloon girl and benefactress for the miners. With Voigt and Giordani together, with music being relegated overall here to subsidiary role here, there seldom emerged any convincing connection between the two, as they sounded across the airwaves. Same held true for Barbara Daniels and Domingo, in his most phlegmatic and slightly choppy rendition of Johnson, up against his triumph as Johnson for La Scala a year earlier. The naturally Italianate quality of Giordani’s vocalism just only about halfway made up for so much else that was lacking.

Lucio Gallo supplied the somewhat dry voiced, but also often reasonably menacing Jack Rance. Several top notes tended to spread, become wobbly. ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa’ , dvd, certainly weak attempt at being endearing allure toward Minnie anyway, started off with more snarl than tone. Gallo, reckoning his Rance to be one that comes up short in being that o the con forza variety, at least made the most he could of insinuating irony in confronting both Minnie and Ramerrez that here was at least a halfway convincing stab at the surly mining camp sheriff. In ineraction with the Sonora of Dwyne Croft, sounded a little more like the voice for Rance than did Gallo.

Dwayne Croft, the cartoonish crocodile tears Larkens on the 1992c Met dvd, asserted good unprepossessing leadership of the mining community, and a well cast one yet again, as Sonora. Edward Parks removed the edge of the glib silver-screen irony of Del Monaco’s cheapening production, restoring genuine humanity to Larkens – through very well nuanced, excellenttly timed parlato out of his closing lines. Hugo Vera supplied the ever energetic, eager Trin for either Trin being a very fit novice at camp or never-ending enthusiast for being there. Tony Stevenson was the always ready morale boosting bartender Nick, whether for miners at large or for a disillusioned Rance to open Act Three. Though overstating the case on one or two lines, Stevenson was also the pro at portraying Nick as solicitous on behalf of security concerns, i.e. toward keeping Minnie equally attentive. Keith Miller provided fine gravitas for a dark-toned, if occasionally woofy Ashby. Jeff Mattsey proved very entertaining as Castro, but seedy to extent that it must be a real dullard of a Rance to get even halfway taken in by such a character. Ginger Coast-Jackson was the smoky, cark toned Wowkle for Suzuki-type writing Puccini supplied ’this character, Philip Cokorinos the very capable, supportive Billy Jackrabbit alongside. Only the Jake Wallace of Oren Gradus got compromised for most of all being placed way too far forward – louder than those miners to belong on stage – making a mockery of how Puccini marked this passage. Also exposed were a couple of dead patches that have developed in the voice of Oren Gradus, that Gradus bulges slightly to hide them, but for the most part, compromises aside, provided the ballateer’s lines fine noble profile.

Acoustical space, how such is managed in this most through-composed of all of Puccini’s operas, proved an issue throughout this performance. Nicola Luisotti capably, efficiently conducted a score that provides its interpreters much in the way of padding. Some glib ignoring, streamlining of Puccini’s dynamics proved to be of some ccncern in several instances. Pacing and contrasts within were good, except for slight rushing ahead mostly toward sparing lyric voices for all three principals further grief. Much of the score sounded as though to have almost played itself – as can be inclined to happen with Fanciulla in its characteristics of both being through-composed and orchesrally the most heavily scored and lush of Puccini’s output.

Engagement with the piece’s frequently winsome wit and swagger and of its opening out of panoramic color, scenography was apt – and yet with all being said there was something missing, not all of which can be laid at Luisotti’s feet. Here requires a grasp, I suppose, of what can be only reckoned as intangibles, And thereby it is important for the stage director or producer for this work – not to mention for many ohers – to be musically astute. In this way, Giancarlo Del Monaco is not up to task, making a conductor still relatively green according to how nuymerous among us can assess his craft, still more of a challenge than it already is. Puccini had a gift for providing silences in his music, even with instruments still sounding from his orchestral forces, tremolo thereof, whatever. Should Fanciulla instead be good soundtrack to, Technicolor for action on stage instead, both Luisotti and Del Monaco were fully up to task, even Leonard Slatkin (Met dvd) – colder, more detached than Luisotti – as well. Much of the uniqueness of Puccini’s scoring carries best by sensitively communicating a reckoning of acoustical space, moreover an absorbing, psychologically enveloping sense of mystery Puccini already provides. Giancarlo Del Monaco, toward achieving this, regardless who is conducting, attains something merely two-dimensional of Fanciulla instead.

It is mostly in this regard that the Met’s centennial Fanciulla del West came up short Even Lorin Maazel, not especially a natural at conducting Italian opera achieves most of what went missing here – in part by being partnered by a very wise, just gently abstract staging by Jonathan Miller at La Scala. Numerous Puccini lovers have bemoaned Fanciulla being looked upon as second-tier Puccini – to some his most beautiful and evocative score of all. There is then hope for it to stand tall next to all four most popular Puccini favorites – Il Trittico as well.

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