One hundred years ago, The Met commissioned Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. The composer was in New York at the time to oversee a production of his megahit, Madame Butterfly, which was based on a David Belasco play. As it happened, another Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West, was playing in New York. Puccini went to see it and this opera is the happy result.
It was the first world premiere ever for the Met so they gave it their biggest stars: Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn. It was a boffo hit at the time, but the opera has fallen out of favor and is rarely done these days. This is, in part, because the roles are so demanding that there are few singers willing to take them on. Another reason is that, even though it is a much better piece of music than his previous works, Fanciulla lacks the big soaring moments that mark Puccini’s style. Also, some of the Orientalisms that crept into Puccini’s style after Butterfly sound out of place in an opera set in the old west.
Fast forward to 2010. The Metropolitan Opera mounts a new production to celebrate the opera’s 100th anniversary. Once again, they enlist a big star in a newly slimmed-down Deborah Voigt. You may remember that she was once so heavy that she was dismissed from the Royal Opera House because she couldn’t fit into the costume. As the British tabloid The Independent printed, “The show ain’t over till the fat lady slims.”
Well, slim she did (thanks to lap band surgery) and Debbie (as she was originally named) was ready for her close up as Minnie, the saloon girl with a heart of gold who has never been kissed.
This brings us to Live from the Met HD screening.
There is both a curse and a blessing in these HD broadcasts to the local cineplex. The good part is that you have a great seat―one that would cost you $245 if you were in the house. (And there wouldn’t be any popcorn!) In point of fact, it is a better seat because the camera gets you close-ups that outperform the best pair of opera glasses. And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.
Up close, many singers don’t look as good as they do from a respectable distance. This was the problem with the tenor, Marcello Giordani, as the supposedly dashing and handsome bandit Dick Johnson. While he is a decent looking fellow, there were a lot more handsome men that hang out it the Met’s version of the Polka Saloon. Why this ordinary looking stranger would sweep Minnie off her feet at first sight is hard to imagine. Hollywood would have cast Brad Pitt or George Clooney.
Not so with Debbie Voigt. She looked terrific and completely believable. Here, we were grateful for the camera which showed the tremendous amount of detail in her performance. Every gesture and facial expression was just perfect. From her pistol packin’ entrance to her final surrender to love, she was Minnie for every second. She sounded wonderful as well and negotiated the demands of the role with ease.
Lucio Gallo made a believable sheriff as Jack Rance. His craggy good looks would have served him just as well in a Hollywood western. As an actor, there was a little too much of the evil Scarpia (from Puccini’s Tosca) in his portrayal of Rance, who is basically a good guy who is just smitten beyond reason with Minnie. Philip Cokorinos as Minnie’s Indian friend Billy Jackrabbit and Ginger Costa-Jackson as his squaw could have also played similar roles on the silver screen. Tony Stevenson, as the bartender Nick, and Dwayne Croft, as Sonora, were equally appropriate. The horses all behaved.
When it comes to the stage picture, we once again had the best and the worst of times. The realistic set looked marvelous in every shot. What the movie house audience missed was the action that went on when the set was divided―say inside the saloon and outside. A long shot made everything too small and panning back and forth would make the audience dizzy, so the camera had to pick one side or the other. Thus, we missed some of the action―and we knew it.
However, this was a golden opportunity to see one of Puccini’s rarely performed masterpieces in a magnificent production. Conductor Nicola Luisotti was right on and brought out the detail in the orchestration―which is one of the best Puccini ever did. This writer intends to go see it again when it is re-broadcast next week.
Here's a snippet from the production:
►There will be an encore of La Fanciulla del West at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 26, at the following local theaters: AMC Northpark Center 15 (Dallas), Cinemark 17 (Dallas), Galaxy Theatre (Dallas), AMC Mesquite 30, Cinemark 14 Cedar Hill, AMC Parks At Arlington 18, Vista Ridge Mall (Lewisville), Tinseltown Movies 17 (Grapevine), Cinemark West Plano, Cinemark 12 Town Center (Mansfield), Cinemark 12 Rockwall, Cinemark 24 (The Legacy, Plano), Fossil Creek (ForT Worth), AMC Palace 9 (Fort Worth), Cinemark Allen 16, Movies 14 (Burleson) and Cinemark 14 (Denton). Call your local theater ahead for tickets as these screening sometimes sell out.
►The rest of Live at the Met HD season is:
- Adams' Nixon in China (1pm Feb. 12, 6:30pom March 2) 4 hours
- Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (1pm Feb. 26, 6:30pm March 16) 2 and a half hours
- Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (1pm March 19, 6:30pm April 6) 4 hours
- Rossini's Le Comte Ory (1pm April 9, 6:30pm April 27) 3 hours
- Strauss' Capriccio (1pm April 23, 6:30pm May 11) 3 hours
- Verdi's Il Trovatore (1pm April 30, 6:30pm May 18) 3 hours
- Wagner's Die Walküre (noon May 14, 6:30pm June 1) 5 and a half hours