Music / Double Play: Go Western, young man: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on Puccini and Julie

Puccini - La Fanciulla del West: Marton, O'Neill, Fondary, Munich Radio Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin (BMG/RCA 09026 60597-2 - two CDs)

'MORE than just a musical Western,' says the booklet note. Perhaps that is the problem: Puccini's adaptation is too ambitious - or simply too good for this Hollywood B-picture story, with its gun-toting, virginal heroine and her pasteboard penitent thief. Still, the music can be insidiously moving, and this performance brings it all to life effectively. No, not quite all of it: Eva Marton's magisterial, big-boned Minnie worried me at first - but given that the role is impossible, she settles into it rather well.

Admittedly, neither Dennis O'Neill's Johnson or Alain Fondary's Jack Rance are sensational characterisations, but musically there is plenty to admire in both, and the fact that this so obviously is not a star vehicle adds to the appeal for me. Smaller parts are satisfactory too. If anyone is to be singled out for special praise, it has to be Leonard Slatkin, who shapes and shades this often strikingly original score with authority and plenty of feeling, and the recording serves him well. SJ

THE original 'Spaghetti Western' - and about as American as Sergio Leone. I never could work out if 'Doo-dah-doo-dah-day' was intended to suggest local colour. And isn't 'Hip, Hip, Hooray]' an English custom? And aren't those 'oriental' harmonies I hear: Turandot in Texas? No matter, the story of Minnie and Dick is terrific hokum and pretty decent Puccini. Leonard Slatkin conducts it wide-screen. The ensembles go with a swing, the cake-walk rhythms strut and swagger, and as for the poker-game showdown in Act Two, Slatkin triumphantly joins the mile-high club for melodramatic excess as Minnie flings down her winning hand.

Eva Marton pulls out all her stops here, and how; but it's no use pretending that she is a natural for the role. She has worked hard on her Italian style, lightening her sound. But the timbre isn't right. Dennis O'Neill, more than creditable in his first big international recording, gets much closer. There are inelegancies, but equally as much that is felicitous. His quiet singing in particular brings great awareness of style and colour.

Slatkin is unique in having reinstated the coda of the love duet with high B flats and a top C, and there is an extra scene with the 'Indian', Billy Jackrabbit. Reason enough to be heading out to the trading post to turn in my Neblett / Domingo / Mehta recording? I think not. ES

Rodgers & Hammerstein - The King and I: Julie Andrews, Ben Kingsley, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra / John Mauceri (Philips 438 007-2)

HERE are a text and a score in perfect harmony. The final triumph of liberal Western values might not seem quite so rosily inevitable in an age of recession and resurgent fundamentalism, but the human drama still emerges well, even with the story boiled down into a 65-minute musical suite. No doubt who deserves the credit (apart from the authors, of course). John Mauceri is a natural stylist. He doesn't force his own ideas on the score, or attempt to inflate its pretensions, and there is tenderness as well as gloss. As for Julie Andrews - well, hard as it might be to imagine a really dangerous erotic frisson between her and Ben Kingsley's King, could anyone else deflate a Far-Eastern patriarch with such dignified purity? The show is hers - a strong counterbalance to the Brynner-dominated spectacle of the later Broadway years.

The other parts may be shadowy - and Martin Sheen and Roger Moore's tiny contributions hardly seem to justify their 'special guest' bookings - but the charm factor remains high. SJ

AS they say in the trade, dream casting. Julie Andrews is Anna Leonowens - and not before time. Songs like 'I Whistle a Happy Tune' and 'Getting to Know You' had her name on them from the beginning. And when she casts her mind back to old England, to memories of her late husband Tom ('Hello Young Lovers'), the scent of nostalgia is in every crisply enunciated word. It's that quaint, open delivery of hers: pristine, eager tone, dreamy portamento. Perfect.

Then there is Ben Kingsley's King, preening and proclaiming, 'etcetera, etcetera, and so forth . . .': no mere figure of fun, he, but a real character fleshed from a handful of songs and a few lines of dialogue. Yul Brynner was never so funny in 'Shall We Dance'. And how well both he and Andrews play here upon the sexual undercurrent: the world's least romantic dance (the polka) turned mating ritual. I doubt that any of Broadway's great classics could have been re-cast this successfully. Only Peabo Bryson's Lun Tha jars with his latter-day 'soul' sound. Marilyn Horne (an inspired idea) sings 'Something Wonderful' with the kind of majestic over-ripeness only she can now muster. John Mauceri has done us proud with Alfred Newman's sumptuous movie orchestrations, dripping with schmaltz and gamelan in equal measure. Spoil yourself. ES

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