Everyone a bandit
Lydia Steier directs La Fanciulla del West in Berlin (*****+)
Author : Jos Hermans
The New York premiere of "La Fanciulla del West" (1910) was a society event and a great success. Puccini claimed that he and the performers had fifty-five curtain calls; thirty of those were for the composer. La Fanciulla emerged as a California gold mine and remained so for quite a while until after its premiere. It was the most ambitious composition Puccini had written up to that point and it is not unimportant to point out that Puccini himself considered it his best opera. He wrote this at a time when he would only produce Il Trittico and Turandot.
Not only does he appeal to a larger orchestra than before, he also uses it in a more imaginative way, his harmonic vocabulary has become tighter and more diverse. The 34-bar overture that tries to place us in the Wagnerian, fairy-tale Wild West is clever but very short. In the atmospheric painting of the second act you can hear that he has been listening to Debussy. Because the action is moved to an unusual setting, the American Wild West, Puccini can also make use of folk music. It gives him the opportunity to infuse the orchestra's post-Wagnerian flood of sound with brutal and barbaric rhythmic figures. His orchestral virtuosity is best expressed in the scene of the poker game, at the end of the second act where, in an atmosphere of ominous intimacy, he manages to raise the tension to an overwhelming climax. Another highlight is the lynch scene from the third act. The music there is chaotic, feverish, full of aggressive accents, cries and noise. Did Puccini want to pay homage here to Wagner's Götterdämmerung, given the similarity to the jubilation of the hunters who become even more agitated by Hagen's cold fury?
Incidentally, doesn't Wagner, the composer whom Puccini revered above all others, cast his shadow over the whole Fanciulla? Guy Cogeval thinks so: "Johnson, the noble bandit haunted by society's stubborn hatred, reminds us irresistibly of Siegmund; when Minnie discovers Johnson's true identity, the bandit's recourse to his father's inheritance echoes Wagner's hero's desperate wanderings from Die Walküre. Likewise, the irresistible way in which Minnie is attracted to Johnson, right from the first act, can also be seen as recognizing a hidden and fateful twinship, as that of Siegmund and Sieglinde gradually becomes aware. But above all: in the name of passionate love, Minnie renounces her moral views, lies to her friends, cheats at the card game, and deceives the community of which she is a part, like Brünnhilde who goes against fate and refuses to obey Wotan when her heart finally catches Siegmund's despair."
With "La fanciulla del West," Puccini became something like the Sergio Leone of the opera business and Fanciulla a kind of precursor to the American musical. Is that a valid reason why the work is played so little today, certainly in Europe? Make no mistake, Fanciulla is not a second-rate work within the Puccini canon even though it has only one distinct aria, the tenor aria "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano" with which the bandit Johnson/Ramerrez saves himself from the noose in the last 10 minutes of the piece. With Fanciulla, Puccini's use of the voice moves decisively in the direction of a generalized quasi-parlando. Puccini must have been well aware that his opera would not be received in the same way as his other operas. Contemporaries called the work reactionary, the eternal poseur Igor Stravinsky even claimed it was a horse opera for television.
"It is exasperating that so many commentators on La Fanciulla lament the lack of arias and grumble about the questionable quality of the melodies, as if this work were a failed Tosca. This opera contains an abundance of melodies, but Puccini subordinates them to the character sketches and to the description of the action. Those who listen only to the voices during the performance will miss the most interesting source of melodies, especially the orchestra." William Ashbrook wrote.
As far as the action is concerned, it may be clear that Puccini's desire is central to turning our backs on the world of frail heroines and fragile females. Puccini's portrayal of American pioneer life is faithful to historical reality, and Minnie, the virgin Bible teacher who receives her first kiss from a bandit who dilutes his whiskey with water, is the essence of all those heroic American pioneer women who made their way to the land of promise with a frying pan, bedding, and the family Bible. Puccini's opera sums up the California of those days in a nutshell: only two women live in the town: one is the Virgin of the Saloon, the other, Nina Micheltorena, is a woman of light morals. The prospectors are portrayed with all their ignorance, brutality and homesickness. But the men are authentic, with their homesickness, their desperation and their anger, and their respect for this virtuous woman who can handle a gun, play poker and watch over their gold and her body.
Frankly I have never seen the first act in een stronger staging. The chips nibbling little boy who witnesses a hanging is the son of Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit. Hangings seem to be part of the daily violence in the neighborhood of the Polka Saloon, and Lydia Steier sometimes makes us look at the play through the boy's eyes. He will also try to direct the action as when he sends Dick Johnson's pursuers in the wrong direction. All of the scenes with the gold-fevered cowboys are vividly directed, the fight scenes included. Jack Wallace sings his heimat song descending from the stage tower, flanked by two female acrobats hanging from a circus ring. Cowboys in luminous suits enhance the Las Vegas content of the show. Very beautiful, very kitschy, very American. Who said the play wasn't American enough?
Michael Volle dominates the scene with stunning macho coolness, lurking on many a cigarette. He lets the small fires resolve themselves, for the larger ones he asserts his authority with a commanding voice. The voice projects wonderfully well and his melodramatic outburst "this gold is the only thing that has never cheated me and now I would give it all up for one kiss from you" mirrors Minnie's song about her childhood in Soledad.
The tension between the sheriff and the bandit seducing with poetry and dance is already cutting in the first act. Dick Johnson's attempts at seduction do not result in the usual romantic aria of a love duet, but Marcelo Alvarez shows how effective Puccini's new style can be. Stephan Rügamer as the drag queen Nick, in high heels, with red wig and a masculine sounding voice, is divine. It's a great score that has now unfolded and then the best is yet to come.
The ironclad second act is the emotional rollercoaster it should be. Minnie's cabin has the contours of an opened letter envelope. The triangle at the top is the tiny attic room where the bandit will hide. It seems carved into a rock, a rock that will soon transform itself into a video wall. The puny shack, 6 feet by 15 feet roughly, now seems to float within a canvas of snowflakes, keeping pace with the great emotions within. Alvarez gets down on his knees during the confession of his life story and fills the room with his impressive Latin tenor. Arriving at this point, he could convince just about anyone of anything.
With his heart bitter and poisoned, the frustrated sheriff begins to surrender to sadism but it is a sadism so well dosed by Volle that you still sympathize with him. You have to be well focused to notice all the precious details that Massimo Zanetti and the Staatskapelle Berlin dig up like the bitonal pizzicati of the harps that betray the dripping of the wounded Johnson's blood. During the poker game that follows, the orchestral accompaniment at times falls back to an almost inaudible rhythmic timpani roll. When Rance asks the crucial question halfway through the poker game "But what has he got that makes you love him so much?" Minnie parries with "And what do you see in me ? " There is no answer and the tension is palpable. He loses, quickly grabs his coat and disappears, while Minnie screams a frenzied "E mio" that reminds of Scarpia. Anja Kampe also sings a strong second act. Puccini rounds out with a set of the most devastating chords from his bag of tricks. Never does Puccini miss a grand finale.
The short third act can keep the tension going for another half hour until its bitter happy ending. In order to recover from emotions a wind machine provides for the transition while displaying the snowstorm for minutes in a row. A lone wolf is discernible in the distance. The child is now completely confused and shakes his head. An orgy of violence ensues with the Polka Saloon camper and two cowboys going up in flames. The sheriff's jealousy is still not extinguished. With a baseball bat, he threatens to break his rival's legs. Dick Johnson gets to fire off his vintage Puccini aria old style before he is saved from the noose by Minnie. In the context of Puccini's new style, it's almost a showstopper. The final happy ending is classic with the couple facing the California sun hand in hand.
Massimo Zanetti has an eye both for the fulminant romantic surge that at times rolls through the orchestra and for the color and precious details of this captivating score that the Staatskapelle aptly brings to the surface. There are those evenings in the theater when everything is just right, when all that is played seems to be true and the score is projected into the auditorium with maximum effect to satisfy us, hungry wolves of art. Grazie al maestro Puccini per la meravigliosa serata!