By David Salazar
Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” is among the most underrated works in the entire operatic canon. Despite being one of, if not the absolute best, opera by the legendary composer, it doesn’t get nearly as many performances as some of his more iconic or popular works.
One of the major reasons for this is that it is one of his bigger operas, the main cast extending beyond a central trio or quartet of leads, the secondary characters playing prominent roles throughout the major drama. Set it in during the Gold Rush in California and featuring a plot that is a spiritual sister to “Tosca,” it’s not hard to see why many might opt for the more popular Puccini opera in the planning of their seasons.
The Metropolitan Opera, the company that gave literal birth to this very work, has been just as guilty of leaving the opera on the repertory sidelines, its most recent production coming back in 2011.
Fortunately, the company has revived the work and with a cast that reminds us that it is truly one of the greatest masterpieces ever written.
A Rough Start
The opening night performance on Oct. 4, 2018, was not a perfect one and to really get a grasp on how it went down, it is best to turn to the chief musical participant of the entire evening – maestro Marco Armiliato.
The Italian maestro is old reliable in the sense that everything he does is always of top quality. But things didn’t seem quite right as the night began. The prelude rocked with bombastic energy, the volume imposing and eruptive; it was enough to get you excited, but yet there seemed some unease in the overall cohesion of the ensemble. This would come to the fore several minutes later during Jack Wallace’s “Che faranno I vecchi miei” where the off-stage singer and the conductor just couldn’t it keep it together. And even when Jack (played by Oren Gradus) came onstage and was joined by the ensemble, it didn’t quite work. Things started getting hairier as the act progressed with the conductor often rushing ahead of his soloists or outright drowning them out in crucial moments like Jack Rance’s “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito” and Johnson’s “Quello che tacette.” It was clear that maestro and his soloists were struggling through these passages, among others, and it generated a sense of unease from a musical standpoint.
But then the second curtain came up, and from the first woodwind solo to the final notes of Act three, Armiliato seemed to be the brilliant and refined musician that has characterized his whole career. He was extremely sensitive to the singers and from a few glances I made his way it clear that his attention was squarely on them. The orchestra riveted the entire time, whether it be the ecstatic climaxes, or in quieter moments of potent subtlety or maximum tension. The card scene is one of the finest in the score, Puccini deftly stripping the orchestral down further and further as the match progresses until all we are left with ostinato pizzicato in the lower strings, the sound quiet, but audible enough to generate massive intensity in the action. This was perfectly executed by the Met Orchestra under Armiliato.
In other sections, you could feel the entire musical conception of the work come together with drive and yet ample breadth to give singers a chance to do what they do best.
And that they certainly did.
Let’s start off with the ensemble cast members, because there is a ton of them. Perhaps no other Puccini opera, except “La Bohème” has such a fascinating supporting cast as “La Fanciulla” does. Whether it be the homesick Jake (sung with delicacy by Oren Gradus) to gentlemanly Sonora or the loyal Nick, the cast of miners are all unique in their own ways. In Michael Todd Simpson’s hands, Sonora moved from rude and coarse to the ultimate gentleman in the final scene, his pleas for Minnie to have her way truly affecting.
Carlo Bosi’s voice resonated well in the house, his presence always felt; there is a moment toward the end of Act two where he is exiting Minnie’s home alongside Jack Rance and Sonora and he asks Minnie if she would like him to stay with her. This quiet utterance, gently delivered, really emphasized how caring Nick was as a person; he furthered this characterization in the ensuing Act as he carefully listened to Rance’s account.
A Golden Girl
The title character is a truly demanding role for any soprano, requiring a quasi-Wagnerian voice that still has the agility of a more lyric soprano. Eva-Maria Westbroek has the former though you wouldn’t associate the aesthetic qualities of her sound with the latter. It’s a grainier timbre that might not always have the most pleasing of qualities, but there is no doubt that Westbroek knows Minnie inside and out, as her incredible performance on Thursday revealed.
She commanded the stage at every juncture from the moment she arrived, admonishing the boys for their bad behavior. You sense Minnie sense of power and Westbroek’s booming voice only reinforced this notion.
But Minnie is not just a powerhouse, but a woman who struggles with a sense of confidence and self-doubt, which was best shown in her duet with Ramirez / Johnson. As she revealed her sense of nothingness, her voice took on a finer complexity, the vibrato lessened significantly. She stood still for most of this exchange, her look toward the ground, giving the sense of a vulnerable character scared to reveal her truth and also fighting with the sense of self-worth.
This was in contrast to her monologue “Laggiù nel Soledad,” sung with smoother timbre, which allowed a different sense of intimacy. Here, Westbroek drew the listener in as she seemed to grow quieter with every phrase. The legato line “S’amavan tanto” featured an incredible crescendo that didn’t quite hit its mark, as the soprano’s High C was a tad flat, but her commitment to the moment was so immersive that it was easy to overlook the questionable high note.
There were a number of other instances throughout Act one where the high notes didn’t quite hit the mark, but by the time the soprano was in the second Act, her voice was soaring over everyone else’s in a visceral and potent way, particularly in the love duet with Eyvazov; their vocal lines matched beautifully, but her volume seemed to outgrow his (and he has a pretty big voice).
But it’s the second half of the Act where Westbroek really stole the show. At the very moment where it is revealed that Ramirez has been lying to her, you could immediately sense the change in Westbroek’s Minnie. The innocent romantic we had seen in the love duet was suddenly gone and in her stead was pure anger. Just watching her body language as she wandered about the stage, trying to control herself and not give her lover away, was pure tension. While the other men were talking and relating their discovery, it was her that your attention was drawn to. When the men leave, Puccini gives Minnie the line “Vieni fuori” in the lower part of her voice and Westbroek filled it with anger, disappointment, bitterness, and pain, her glare growing by the second.
When Ramirez is shot, tension hangs in the air and it grew even greater as Westbroek slowly and unsurely walked from one side of the cabin toward the door; we could feel Minnie’s internal conflict at every step – does she let her anger at Ramirez live on or does she save the man she loves? Even when she finally opens the door we feel that the transition to this moment has been earned and it feels all the more riveting.
And then there was the card scene, where Westbroek battled for her life, throwing off the predatory advances of Rance with aggressive vocal fire, staring him down during their climactic card game; she was his equal every step of the way and you sensed Minnie growing stronger by the minute. The final utterance of “Tre assi e un paio” was pure catharsis as was the powerful stream of sound on “E mio” that closes the act, her voice blasting over the orchestra.
Minnie saves Ramirez from Rance in Act two and then she takes it to the next level by saving him from certain death yet again in the final Act, this time confronting the entire miner community. The final ensemble of this work features the entire cast and the soprano is tasked with rocketing her voice through the thickness of it all. And Westbroek did just that, consolidating herself as the true heroine on the night in all facets.
And she still has quite a few performances to go. You don’t want to miss her.
Growing Into The Bandit
As Dick Johnson (a.k.a. the bandit Ramirez) was tenor Yusif Eyvazov. It was his first crack at the role and it looked like the tenor took some time to get comfortable. His voice didn’t have much brilliance in the first Act, his sound somewhat restrained and lacking in resonance. “Quelle che tacete” was full of hesitance, the tenor fixed in his spot, his eyes locked on the maestro throughout the first few phrases, seemingly trying to figure out the Armiliato’s tempi. The result was that the sweeping phrase never took off and soared as it often does. The tenor hit all the right notes quite potently and assuredly (you could never fault Eyvazov of having anything but a solid and sturdy technique), though you wondered how he might handle the more challenging second and third Act.
He did so magnificently.
From his entrance in the second Act, it was clear that the tenor was at home vocally with the music. He was fully engaged dramatically with Westbroek (they had strong rapport throughout the night) and his singing blossomed. His utterances of “Un Bacio” as he pleaded for the kiss grew in intensity with each moment.
His interpretation of “Sono un dannata!” was one of the high points of his evening, the tenor building the arioso slowly and methodically as the narrative developed and climaxed with a series of high B flats on “La mia vergogna!” In this particular moment, Eyvazov displayed incredible breath control, leading the high B flats into the ensuing “Ahime,” also on a high B flat, without taking a breath. Moreover, he sustained the whole note B flat quite amply; it was a stunning display of virtuosity combined with intense passion that allowed us to feel Ramirez’s pain in this confession.
Of course, many put a ton of stock into the final aria “Ch’ella mi creda,” which is the work’s most famous selection. Eyvazov is an intelligent musician, as displayed with his insightful reading of “E lucevan le stele” last season in “Tosca,” and here again he reminded us of it. His reading of the famed aria was expansive, allowing the tenor to create a more prayer-like mood with the aria, the opening phrases sung piannissimo. This was further supported by luxurious legato phrasing, each note beautifully joined with the previous, the phrasing organic. This expansive approach allowed for beautiful details to surface, such as a delicate diminuendo on the first “mio solo fiore,” the sound threadlike. From here he built to the climax, each phrase crescendoing and growing until the climactic high B flat fermata, which the tenor sustained with everything he had; the ensuing A flat had a powerful accent that he carried through the end of the line, expressing intense desperation.
After the initial hesitance in Act one, Eyvazov put on an immaculate vocal display that proved one of the strong points of the performance as a whole. One might imagine that over the course of his three remaining performances his Act one will be on the level of his work in the final two.
Prior to the start of the performance, it was announced that baritone Zeljko Lucic was overcoming a cold and was asking for the audience’s understanding. And during his opening lines it did seem that the audience would be in for a long night with the baritone, his sound barely audible through the thick orchestra; when compared to the potent projection of other artists, Lucic seemed to pale in comparison. But the arrival of Westbroek seemed to spark him to life and his “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito” showcased the baritone’s ability to let his voice soar into its higher range with great security. There was no sign of any illness in the singing; in fact, since his “Macbeth” a few years ago, this was the best singing that Lucic had done at the Met in many performances.
And it would only get better, the baritone clearly engaged not only vocally, but dramatically. In many ways, Rance is a more complex Scarpia. Both are men of the law, but while the more famed villain is a despot bent on using his power in any way it serves him, Rance is more complex and nuanced. He has no gripes about using his power as it suits him, but he also has a heart and is capable of love. Lucic’s reading of Rance was more complex still, his feelings for Minnie quite ambiguous. At times there was a genuine sense of tenderness, as was the case in “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito,” where Lucic didn’t just blast his voice with sexual frenzy as is the case in some readings but allowed the gentle hues in his timbre to come to the fore. And yet in the second Act, struck by intense jealousy, he grabbed Minnie in a way that could only be described as sexual assault. It was violent, it was nasty, and Lucic’s harsh and accented voice only added to this sense of ferocious sexual craving. It was more intense than anything he ever conjured up as Scarpia during last season’s run of “Tosca.” It certainly didn’t help to have Westbroek putting on a sensational and fully-engaged performance right next to him.
And then came the card scene. Minnie’s back is to the audience for most of this sequence, so the focal point for the viewer is Rance, who is more visible. Lucic was all business in the game, aggressive in how he handled each card, how he threw the deck on the table, and how he glared at Minnie, a predatory look if there ever was one. The way he barked his dialogue only added to his intimidating nature in this scene, fueling the tension evermore. The two were electric in this moment, everything else falling away, our eyes and ears squarely on two people sitting and talking at a table.
And when the game came to an end, Lucic’s look was even more violent; you were scared for Westbroek. But he walked away, still transmitting this fiery energy, walked away and gave an icy, “Buona notte.” Lucic has hardly ever been more compelling.
The third Act kicks off with Rance remembering his failure with Minnie, the bitterness seeping into Lucic’s voice throughout his conversation with Nick. You could see the anger and fury grow throughout this act, climaxing in his outrage when the other miners turned on him. He stood over them all, yet with their guns pointed at him, he looked frustrated at his newfound powerlessness.
This production’s final moments are brilliant. As the two lovers walk away, hope and new opportunity on their minds, Rance picks up Minnie’s gun off the floor and points it at them. But then he stops and stares at it, indecisive as to what he might do next. It’s an incredible moment of introspection and adds nuance to the complexity of Rance. We’ve seen that he can’t bring himself to murder the lovers and yet he still doesn’t know if he might. Or perhaps, he’s thinking about killing himself, amidst a disheveled town that looks on the decline. Perhaps, unlike the lovers who can hope for a new future, Rance, an old-time Sheriff, is nothing but a relic of the past with no future. And in the context of the #MeToo movement, Rance, a man whose own power could not help him get the woman he wanted, also has no place in the future.
And that’s the key to this production and its brilliance. It’s undeniably opulent in its scope, but unlike something like the new “Samson et Dalila,” which tries to hide its lack of ideas behind glitz and glam, this one finds new and relevant meaning in older ideas. By setting it in the world that Puccini and Belasco originally intended, revival director Gregory Keller (Giancarlo del Monaco was the original visionary behind the production) and his team can find new details that will allow themes to breathe and come to life. It’s a reminder that these works endure on their own for a reason. This ending is but one example, but the entire production is rife with directorial brilliance.
The “Polka” is always brimming with energy and life; the score itself is highly cinematic and the action, even when there is a massive ensemble, is always focused in key parts of the stage. You have a table on stage left and the bar on stage right. A massive staircase leads to a second floor and a door upstage looms. The table on stage left is established as an area of importance right from the opening image of the opera, Rance seated there bitterly. Most key interactions take place here throughout the act, the constant return to the table a subtle but strong directorial choice; it becomes instinctual for the audience to constantly look in that direction amongst the clutter of other characters, creating a sense of clarity in the viewing experience.
Act two takes place in Minnie’s cabin, though we exit it on a number of occasions. Again, the directors of the production showcase a sense of efficiency with the staging and you could sense that the actors are also fully invested in the choices. The lovers are generally placed at the center of the cabin in their main exchanges and the card scene, off to a corner of the cabin, is extremely cinematic in its focus. Nothing else is there to distract from the action and the audience has nowhere to look but right at the actors sitting and playing cards. It seems rather obvious if you think about it, but even the most minimalist of directors often feel that they need their actors shifting about just to add “dynamism” onstage because they simply don’t trust the drama or, worse yet, the audience’s investment in it. Restraint can be just as effective, if not more.
The paler color palette creates a sense of a dying era, which plays up the nostalgic emotion prevalent throughout the opera. Only Minnie’s light blue dress in Act two (her attire grows brighter throughout the work) adds a sense of contrast and hope to the grim surroundings. Ramirez, despite being the “hero,” wears black, emphasizing his moral complexity.
Even if we don’t analyze every element of the production, we feel and understand the meaning almost instantly, whether consciously or subconsciously. This is great directing. And it’s why “La Fanciulla del West” is the work to see at the Met right now.
There’s literally drama in every image, detail, musical phrase, and yes, breath.