That’s what conductor Steven Mercurio called Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) in a recent issue of Opera News. Puccini composed the score to the play of the same name by American playwright, David Belasco.
The opera, which remains relatively unheralded compared to Puccini’s other scores—“Tosca,” “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly”—is being feted this season on the 100th Anniversary of its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Puccini attended the premiere and heard Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn in the leading roles with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Puccini considered it his best score.
Since its premiere, where it received a tumultuous 14 curtain calls, the opera has had a spotty history. Lyric has not performed “La Fanciulla” since 1990. Why? The opera has a winning story of personal redemption and beautiful melodies, good enough for Andrew Lloyd Weber to poach for the signature song to his “Phantom” musical, “Magic of the Night.” One reason may be that few sopranos can or want to tackle the fearsome vocal and dramatic demands of the score.
In honor of the centennial, America’s two leading opera houses mounted different productions. Rarer still, I was able to see the Met and Lyric Opera productions only weeks apart with the same two leads, soprano Deborah Voigt as Minnie and tenor Marcello Giordani as the bandit, Ramerrez, aka Dick Johnson.
The opera is set in a California mining town at the time of the Gold Rush (1849). Minnie is the good-hearted proprietor of The Polka Inn, a saloon frequented by the men who’ve left their homes and families to come West and find their fortune. Jack Rance, the town’s sheriff, lusts after Minnie but she gives her heart, unknowingly, to the Mexican bandit, Ramerrez, who comes to town masquerading as “Johnson from Sacramento.” The opera’s action revolves around Minnie and Johnson’s growing love affair, Rance’s suspicions and the discovery of Johnson’s true identity.
I’ll compare the two viewings by commenting on various aspects of the productions and deliver a sports page-like ranking.
VIEWING—I saw the Met production in a local movie theater on a live HD transmission. The vivid picture quality impressed me more than I expected and the close-ups of the singers added extra immediacy to my enjoyment. At Lyric, I sat in a sixth row seat, which conveyed the same close-up immediacy with the advantage of being in the house, hearing a live performance. Advantage—A Tie. (“Superb Viewing in Both Productions. However, live performance and seat location favor Lyric but the Met wins if one is seated in rear orchestra or upper balcony).
STAGING—Both Giancarlo del Monaco’s Met production and Lyric’s by theater director, Harold Prince, told the tale by focusing on the miners and not a John Ford cowboy western with blazing guns and 10-gallon hats (Lyric’s Jack Rance hardly wore his hat, preferring to hold it in his hand by his side, an odd and distracting choice for a sheriff).
The major differences were in the set, costumes and lighting design. The Met used nearly the entire stage to depict the interior of The Polka Inn while Lyric’s smaller set was centered in the middle of the stage and showed the inn’s exterior as the opening curtain rose while the remaining half showing the rocky landscape.
Set Design—When Lyric’s set opened, the Polka Inn had a cramped feeling that proved too small for all the miners onstage. The saloon’s smaller set proved a greater disadvantage in the second act, when only half the set had to serve as the entirety of Minnie’s cabin. The Met’s cabin, meanwhile, was twice as large and more appropriate for all the props and action that take place during the act. Advantage—The Met
Costumes revealed another major difference. The Met production had the miners in more authentic western garb with checked shirts, bandanas and vests. At Lyric, while the miners sported appropriate garb, it was strange to see the bandit Ramerrez and sheriff Jack Rance clothed in knee-length overcoats, outfits more appropriate for landed gentry than cowboys. Advantage—The Met
Finally, the lighting design at Lyric was dark and much too somber compared to the Met’s brighter palette. It was nearly impossible to make out the miners at the opening curtain entering from Stage Right or to see Ramerrez flee outdoors in the second act to avoid capture. Both the Met and Lyric productions featured the majestic Sierra Mountains in the background; the Met, however, effectively spotlit the snowy peaks in the second act onward while they remained in darkness at Lyric until the last act. For a story in which nature and the harsh landscape are a key backdrop and in which the Sierras cover the entire rear of Lyric’s stage, it seemed the lighting was not used to best effect. Advantage—The Met
Singers—Though music lovers and critics care most about this category, I placed it last because Deborah Voight and Marcello Giordani were in fine voice and delivered winning dramatic portrayals in both productions. However, in supporting roles, I preferred Lyric’s casting of Jack Rance and Jake Wallace. Marco Vratogna’s dark, baritone delivery was slightly better than that of Lucio Gallo in New York. And Paul Corona at Lyric gave a more ardent rendition of Jake Wallace’s nostalgic song of home. Advantage—Lyric
And give Lyric another point for Minnie’s show-stopping rescue of Ramerrez from the gallows. While she simply came running in at The Met, she enters atop an old-fashioned hand-pump railcar at Lyric and, with a single shot, severs the hanging rope in two, a feat that drew a gasp from the audience.
While I have been more critical of Lyric’s production, it has been in the supporting categories. I’ve had no qualms about the glorious singing, staging or the score. So, I’d urge that you don’t miss discovering the joy of this neglected Puccini score. Six more performances remain through February 21. For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.
The next Met Live HD production, John Adams’ “Nixon in China”, will be telecast on Saturday, February 12. For details and ticket sales, go to www.metopera.org.