COMPOSERS: Giacomo Puccini
ALBUM TITLE: Puccini
WORKS: La fanciulla del West
PERFORMER: Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, Tomasz Konieczny; Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst; dir. Marco Arturo Marelli (Vienna, 2013)
CATALOGUE NO: Sony 88875064069
If La bohème is about young love, La fanciulla del West is about old love. Its heroine, Minnie Faulkner, has never been kissed yet she is clearly a grown woman, weary after years of running a bar in a mining camp in Gold Rush California, toting a gun, teaching Bible lessons and mothering the miners. When handsome Dick Johnson arrives at the Polka Saloon, Minnie is as skittish as a teenager, squeezing her tired feet into her best shoes. Johnson has secrets: his real name (Ramerrez), his criminal record, an uncertain relationship with Minnie’s nemesis, Nina Micheltorena, and, most importantly, his longing to start over in a life of ‘love and work’.
Puccini’s American opera can seem silly, with its delirious orchestration and its bran tub of minstrel songs, soaring duets and homesick, homespun waltzes. In the theatre, Minnie’s neuroses can seem ridiculous and Johnson’s redemption improbable. This is not the case in Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2013 Vienna State Opera production, though the costume designer has made Nina Stemme’s Minnie as dowdy as possible in hennaed hair, lumberjack shirt and dungarees. The setting is a crude jumble of container trucks and corrugated iron. But the sense of community and development of individual characters in the ensemble of miners is excellent, and both Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann succeed in making Johnson and Minnie’s last-chance-love thoroughly believable. Their singing is magnificent: supple, authoritative, sincere and tender, with due attention to the words. Among the miners Boaz Daniel and Norbert Ernst shine as Sonora and Nick, and Tomasz Konieczny is riveting as Rance, the sheriff whom Minnie cannot love. Franz Welser-Möst balances narrative urgency and the hallucinatory languor of Minnie and Dick’s love music with playing of outstanding discipline, detail and brilliance from the orchestra.