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Ionarts-at-Large: A Girl From the West in Vienna

available at Amazon
G.Puccini, La Fanciulla del West,
Royal Opera House / Z.Mehta
C.Neblett, P.Domingo, S.Milnes

You don’t have to be twelve or have water on the brain to appreciate Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. But it helps. It’s a daft libretto coupled with sophisticated but unglamorous music that contributes to make it one of Puccini’s less popular operas. It’s a connoisseur’s piece, perhaps: for those who will marvel at the imaginative orchestration and the constant changes of direction in the score. Two, three rare moments exist where Puccini sets out for the grand romantic, Bohéme-esque gesture—only to cut it off just before the climax and continue elsewise. If you stuff the title roles with fabulous or at least famous singers—like the Vienna State Opera for their current, hopelessly sold-out run with Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann—you can assure a sold-out house and having all the Puccini and Kaufmann fetishists atwitter.

It’s ungraceful to take a bone from a dog, and all but impossible to do so from Kaufmann fans. To them, he will be marvelous just appearing, strutting around with untucked machismo, and athletically jumping across the little hot-dog stand’s bar on stage. Kaufmann can act reasonably well, but he has to be asked to do so—and director Marco Marelli wouldn’t dream of it, contenting himself as he did with mildly updated scenery (less 1850s California Goldrush, more early 19th century New York), and instructions for all just to ham it up at will and not to bother with proper blocking. The stereotype-sodden part of Billy Jackrabit was half a step short of blackface. Poor Stemme he put in overalls and such a frightful wig that the idea of the western girl needing a gun to protect herself from the men became downright ludicrous.

At least she got the highest marks of the singers, enchanting those who closed their eyes. Kaufmann sounded honeyed and tight and quite alright, and Tomasz Konieczny went from muffled-dreadful in act 1 to at-least-bearable thereafter. Alessio Arduini (Jake Wallace / José Castro) distinguished himself, alone among the men, with vocal clarity. The finest part about the fourth performance on October 14th was the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, which played with nuance and accuracy across the entire dynamic range.