The original spaghetti western is back and cooked to perfection – al dente – by Antonio Pappano. This is the eighth revival of Piero Faggioni's rip-roaring production, and surely the most fabulously conducted yet. From its thumping CinemaScope-style opening – our first wide shot of Kenneth Adams's sensationally realistic settings – the sweep and swoon of Pappano's conducting is matched by his unerring ear for the opera's narrative detail. There are times – and this is one – when I think that Puccini's big-hearted homage to the Land of the Free is his most accomplished, resourceful and sonically beautiful orchestral score. It exudes the best kind of sentimentality, aching with nostalgia for the old West – and it took an Italian to write it.
At its heart, of course, is the earth-mother figure of Minnie, the sole woman in a world of men, who provides Bible lessons for the boys, looks after their earnings, is their family home-from-home, and claims she's never been kissed. Did nobody tell her that you can't get a man with a gun? Still, if you can sing louder than he can, you'll earn respect in these parts, and when Eva-Maria Westbroek bursts through the saloon doors to an effusion of orchestral sound such as even Puccini rarely topped, you just know that this dame has what it takes. Her big-boned voice can rattle the rafters all right, but better yet, it has that womanly bloom that can melt hearts with a single application of good old-fashioned portamento. So, Westbroek has the warmth and welly for the role, and, in the final scene, her tender entreaty to the men finally to give her something back – namely, her one-time renegade lover Dick Johnson – really hits the spot.
This isn't, of course, an opera for beautiful voices, but rather, the weathered, hardy variety. José Cura sounds like he's hit a few saloons in his time, and physically and vocally has the dark, swarthy complexion the role requires. Silvano Carroli sang the shifty sheriff Jack Rance when this production was new in 1977, so he's forgiven for resorting more to boom and bluster now.
But this is the ultimate ensemble show, and Pappano instils in it irresistible company spirit. His orchestra really delivers, and in Act II, as Minnie whips that extra ace from her garter to win back her lover, the roar of triumph will have been heard all the way to the old MGM backlot.
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