The Met Streams Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Sunday, July 26

Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West  ~ 2Hrs 28Mins

Starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Jonas Kaufmann, and Željko Lučić, conducted by Marco Armiliato. From October 27, 2018. 

So – Fanciulla #2 – and for those of you who don’t choose to pay $20 to hear Jonas’ concert which is still streaming from the Met’s ‘On Demand’ website – here is another opportunity to hear him for free! In this transmission from the Met’s 2018–19 Live in HD season, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (we’ve seen her in Tannhäuser, Cavalleria, and Francesca da Rimini) gives a charming performance as Minnie, the opera’s gun-toting heroine, who runs the saloon in a camp of rambunctious miners. Opposite Westbroek, as I said, is superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann who finally returned to the Met stage for the first time in nearly five years to sing Dick Johnson (although we have been able to see him these past few months as Faust, Parsifal, and Werther). Johnson, alias the outlaw Ramerrez, is the mysterious bandit who wins Minnie’s heart despite his questionable past. This time, baritone Željko Lučić (we’ve seen him as Macbeth – twice! – Scarpia, Rigoletto, and Iago) rounds out the opera’s principal trio as the vindictive sheriff Jack Rance. Marco Armiliato conducts this delightfully cinematic staging by Giancarlo del Monaco.

Though less familiar than several other of Puccini’s greatest hits, this action-packed adventure about the American Wild West, which actually received its world premiere in the US at the Met in 1910, is every bit as compelling as Puccini’s other great operas. Its sweeping, evocative score deftly captures the tone of a Gold Rush era mining camp — the perfect place for a sweet-talkin’ outlaw to fall for a gun-totin’ bar owner with an enormous soprano voice and a heart of gold.

Fanciulla in 1910, was the first of two Puccini creations to have their world premieres at the Metropolitan Opera. The other was Il Trittico in 1918.

Happily, tonight’s love-triangle has a far less lethal ending than most of Puccini’s other creations. Like his Madama Butterfly, Puccini got the story for Fanciulla del West from a David Belasco play — so you might even think of it as the very first Italian/American “Spaghetti Western.” Its premiere at the Met was as star-studded as you could possibly get – conducted by Arturo Toscanini and starring the legendary pair, Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn. 

At its heart, Fanciulla is the story of Minnie, a rough and ready saloon owner in a California gold mining camp. Minnie has become the miners’ mother, teacher, friend and confidant, but longs for a quieter, “settled” life of her own. The opera opens in Minnie’s bar, the Polka, as the tired miners come in for some ‘relaxation’ at the end of the day. As we get to know the miners, a fight breaks out (actually over Minnie) and soon we see a sassy young lady dressed all in tan leather make an impressive entrance – immediately quieting the unruly men by shooting a few bullets from her rifle into the air. We quickly come to understand that her seeming strength belies great warmth and tenderness. She is the only woman for miles around — there are only two female characters in the entire opera (the other being Minnie’s Indian helper, Wowkle) — and the men gravitate to her to find comfort and even their sense of direction. Minnie reads from a well-worn Bible to the miners who listen adoringly. Their rapt expressions in sharp contrast to the raucousness they demonstrated in the fight only a few moments earlier. 

When a Wells Fargo agent comes into the bar to announce he is close to capturing the dangerous outlaw Ramerrez and his gang, the miners are concerned for the safety of both Minnie and their gold, which she keeps hidden for them in the Polka. The camp sheriff, Jack Rance, assures Minnie that he will always be there to protect her – and asks her yet again to marry him, “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito” saying her kiss is now the only treasure he cares about. 

She puts him off, as always, explaining, “Laggiù nel Soledad..” – that she remembers her childhood in Soledad, how much her parents loved each other and that she is waiting for a love like that. 

A stranger enters whom Minnie had briefly met not long before on a stagecoach trip. Calling himself Dick Johnson from Sacramento, Rance immediately becomes suspicious. When Johnson asks Minnie to dance, Rance becomes angrier and angrier, but suddenly the Wells Fargo agent re-enters with a captured outlaw – Castro. After the outlaw spots Johnson, he suddenly feigns fear and agrees to lead the posse to Ramerrez’ hideout (actually planning on leading a wild goose chase, of course). He secretly tells Johnson that he should listen for a whistle from his men and respond when it’s safe for them to rob the Polka. Needless to say, his growing love for Minnie prevents him from ever giving the signal and as they part, he agrees to visit Minnie in her cabin that evening. 

What follows is a beautifully sung journey that takes us from their meeting in Minnie’s cabin; to her learning that he is actually Ramerrez; to his ardent plea for understanding “Una parola sola!/Non mi difenderò” (One word only/I won’t defend myself) before he leaves her; to his being immediately shot by Rance and his men waiting in ambush; to the famous poker game Minnie plays with Rance for Dick’s life (and wins by cheating); to Johnson’s recapture and near hanging as he sings the final, meltingly beautiful tenor aria, “Ch’ella mi creda / libero e lontano” (Let her believe that I’m free and far away); to Minnie’s second dramatic entrance with a shotgun on her hip to convince the miners to let them go in peace and find a new life somewhere else. It’s a wonderful melodic journey well worth the taking! 

Picture Credits

1. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 

2. Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie in Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” at the Met, 2018. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.

3. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” at the Met, 2018. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.

4. A tense game of poker for Dick Johnson’s life between Željko Lučić as Sheriff Rance and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” at the Met, 2018. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.

5. Jonas Kaufmann in the final scene of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” at the Metropolitan Opera, 2018. Photo Credit…. Metropolitan Opera.

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