Heidi Waleson’s new history of the New York City Opera Mad Scenes and Exit Arias makes clear that the Metropolitan Opera was no friend to its Lincoln Center neighbor.

The occasion of the Met’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West should remind us that the Met has never welcomed any rival to its place as THE opera house of New York City. Puccini’s American opera was produced on December 10, 1910, in part, to celebrate the Met’s vanquishing of its only rival, Oscar Hammerstein’s populist Manhattan Opera Company.

Otto Kahn, the Chairman of the Metropolitan Opera’s Board of Directors, had made two decisive moves. First, he had paid Hammerstein to quit the field of opera in New York for a period of ten years. Second, Kahn brought to his opera house  Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Arturo Toscanini from Milan’s La Scala. Gatti-Casazza quickly secured exclusive access to the major European composers. Puccini agreed that the Met would be his American home opera house. His American opera, La Fanciulla del West would premiere at the Met and celebrate Hammerstein’s banishment to Philadelphia and Chicago. (Reborn on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Hammerstein remnant was called the Chicago Grand Opera Company and boasted transplanted New Yorkers – Cleofante Campanini, Mary Garden, and Maurice Renard –  in the world’s  most modern theater, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s Auditorium on Michigan Avenue.)

Not until the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 had there been such publicity surrounding an operatic event in America as the opening of La Fanciulla del West. David Belasco himself, America’s premiere playwright and director, would  oversee the opera’s staging. The great Toscanini would conduct and the tenor of tenors Enrico Caruso, with Pasquale Amato and Emmy Destinn, would star in the great opera of redemption and rebirth. There were 47 curtain calls, and between the second and third acts Puccini was bedecked with a silver crown bearing the national colors of both the United States and Italy.

Today Puccini’s music from this opera would be familiar for two reasons. First, Andrew Lloyd Webber was rumored to have blatantly stolen several famous musical phrases from the opera for pieces of Phantom of the Opera. The most blatant  example comes from “Music of the Night” which borrows from a recurring musical motif that first appears in the aria “Quello che tacete.” After Webber’s musical became a hit, the Puccini estate sued Webber and the suit was settled out of court, the details never made public.

Second, writing at the advent of silent film, Puccini inadvertently supplied the soundtracks for the classic silent American western movies. Many of his motifs and tunes are evident in the silent films scores being composed during the teens and twenties.

The Metropolitan Opera is presenting Giancarlo del Monaco’s staging of La Fanciulla del West, first premiered under the leadership of Joseph Volpe. The scenery and costumes and lighting are beautiful in ways the premiere realistic playwright/director David Belasco would appreciate.

With one exception.

The saloon is the size of a Home Depot. And revival director  Gregory Keller accentuates the a-historical size by placing most of the characters in the upstage half of the saloon, for some unknown reason. As a result, the downstage half of the bar appears as a no man’s land. Mr. Keller’s  crowding of the bar patrons has the unfortunate effect of blocking and diminishing fight master B.H. Barry’s fights.

Perhaps in order to make the entrance of Dick Johnson all the more powerful, the action of Act I is, at best, dull, prior to Jonas Kaufman’s entrance. Even Minnie’s arrival with gunshot seems lost in the upstage crowd.

The characters interpretations in this La Fanciulla are very interesting. Zeljko Lucic’s Jack Rance is wonderful. All of Mr. Lucic’s characters are typically distinct, whether Macbeth, Scarpio or Nabucco. His Sheriff Rance is  suffering from depression from the get-go and only intensifies as the action progresses. Unfortunately, Mr. Keller thinks it necessary to suggest that Mr. Rance might finally commit suicide, a fact which Belasco’s themes-  the triumph of love through forgiveness  and the possibility of new a life – would make impossible. Mr. Lucic also sings powerfully.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s interpretation of Minnie helps explain many puzzlements about the character. Her relationship with a townful of cowboys is more understandable if Minnie is, as played by Ms. Westbroek, a bit mentally slow. The cowboys therefore assume a protective posture toward their “pet” girl. In addition, many of Minnie’s peculiar deliberations and transitions become more understandable within this interpretation. And, like Mr. Lucic, Ms. Westbroek sings up a storm.

The supporting cast is first rate. You will never find a stronger Ashby than that of Matthew Rose, nor a Sonora than that of Michael Todd Simpson. All of the cowboys sing beautifully under the leadership of Donald Palumbo.

The entire opera is led by maestro Marco Armiliato, who, like the opera’s first conductor, Arturo Toscanini, loves the work so much that he conducts from memory rather than from a score. His joy is palpable.

Finally, Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson is everything one was led to hope for, and perhaps, even more. Leading man handsome, masterful in capturing a Gary Cooper Western demeanor, and gloriously singing the role, especially the aria Caruso demanded for Act III, Mr. Kaufmann lives up to his international fame.

La Fanciulla del West proves once again that it deserves to be known by more people and produced more often than it is. It is an operatic and theatrical treasure.


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