There are many reasons to see Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, but the prime one is soprano Deborah Voigt. Voigt, as Minnie, the girl of the golden west, the keeper of the Polka Saloon in a mining camp during the California gold rush, is radiant. Her powerful yet limpid and expressive voice conquers the score, navigating masterfully through its sudden and, in Voigt’s words, “perilous high Cs.”
But equally if not more important, she can act. She conveys the essence of Minnie – as Voigt terms her, “a chick of a different feather” – with both words and music, movement as well as expression. Minnie, despite her insecurities, is a liberated, strong and fiercely independent woman decades ahead of her time – as confident teaching the Bible or holding school for miners as she is pointing a gun. She lives, by her own choice, “alone and unafraid.” She is hesitant seeking true love, doubtful about her looks, and she thinks yearningly of what she might have been if she had had more learning. But she doesn’t hesitate to do what she thinks is right, and she is convinced that no sinner is beyond salvation. Voigt convincingly portrays all sides of this complex and highly appealing character.
Another reason to attend is tenor Marcel Giordani, in fine voice as Ramerrez (aka Dick Johnson), the bandit whose love for Minnie endows him with a heart of gold. He’s the kind of wooer who will ask the subject of his affections whether she likes to read, and then offers to send her books. He becomes the love of her life, and she ultimately saves him from the gallows. Giordani is dashing and cavalier, and you can easily see why Minnie finds him more than appealing, even though he has lied to her about his true identity.
Italian baritone Lucio Gallo is suitably ominous as Jack Rance, the mining-camp sheriff, the voice of evil who lusts for Minnie and will stop at almost nothing to get her. The rest of the cast, including the chorus, is in fine form.
Puccini called Fanciulla “the best opera I have written.” Maybe not, but it is a gritty yet charming evocation of the Wild West. Maybe the composer was thinking of the precise and seemingly effortless way he was able to smoothly integrate story and music, the natural flow of libretto and melody, perhaps even more effectively than in his other masterworks. Fanciulla lacks the memorable arias of La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot, but it possesses a true sense of place, time and individual character.
The Met production, last seen in 1993, honors the opera’s centennial – Fanciulla premiered at the old Met in 1910, starring Enrico Caruso, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. According to the New York Times, there were 14 curtain calls – just at the end of act one. There were many more to come, and the premiere was an enormous success, though the opera has become one of Puccini’s less frequently performed works. It is not to every operagoer’s taste, perhaps because of the absence of those showpiece arias.
The opera is based on the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco, who also wrote the drama Puccini adapted for Madama Butterfly and who directed the opening night of Fanciulla – with Puccini in the audience.
The 1991 Giancarlo del Monaco production was in the older Met tradition of straightforward realism, and Michael Scott’s striking costumes and sets – Minnie’s bar, her cabin, and a desolate town where Ramerrez is taken to be executed – strongly propelled us back in time. We sense this could have been a gold-rush setting, inhabited by real miners.