ALBUM TITLE: Puccini: La fanciulla del West
WORKS: La fanciulla del West
PERFORMER: Eva-Maria Westbroek, Ashley Holland, Carlo Ventre, Peter Marsh; Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra/Sebastian Weigle
CATALOGUE NO: OC 945
Puccini considered several plays as potential subjects for his first American opera. In David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West, the Italian composer found a heroine who was ‘naive and refreshing’ and a landscape and situation as exotic and inspiring as that of Japan or the Quartier Latin. To those used to hard-boiled Westerns starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, Minnie, the gun-toting, poker-playing saloon owner who teaches Bible classes and has ‘never been kissed’, remains a puzzle. But Puccini’s evocation of the wild Sierra Madre and the privations and homesickness of the gold-miners who venerate Minnie as saint and big sister is so rich with colour and human detail as to be irresistible.
Recorded live from Christof Loy’s 2013 Oper Frankfurt production, this performance under conductor Sebastian Weigle has impressive clarity and virility, and an attractive dewiness of orchestral tone as the central love affair begins to ripen. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s opulent, unguarded soprano voice has begun to spread at the top, but she has tenderness and stamina and is equally persuasive in Minnie’s spinsterish fussing at the top of Act II and her magnificent Act III plea for Ramerrez/Johnson’s freedom.
Tenor Carlo Ventre’s butch, grizzled voice makes the bandit an unlikely heart-throb. If I were Minnie, I’d settle for Ashley Holland’s smooth Jack Rance, or perhaps Franz Mayer’s touching Jake Wallace. It’s not a perfect recording of this imperfect, improbable opera, but its pros handsomely outweigh its cons.