And yet La Fanciulla del West has always been the big sleeper among Puccini operas. It doesn't parade big numbers like the others in his canon but rather presents an integrated, through-composed musical melodrama of exciting richness and virtuosity. It's a company piece, full of tiny but telling cameo roles in a "cast of thousands". Perhaps for that reason, few have it in their repertoire. Even fewer can boast a production like this.
The Royal Opera has jealously hung on to it since 1977 when the designer Ken ("James Bond") Adams's gigantic, wide-screen, movie-ready sets first took our breath away. They still do. The Polka Saloon looks solid enough to have survived the Gold Rush itself. Never mind that the intervals are longer than at least one of the acts - sets like this weren't built (or rebuilt) for quick-change, but they were built to last.
The director Piero Faggioni has returned to brush up all the detail of his famous production. It's the kind of work that beautifully complements Puccini's brave attempts at all-out naturalism. In act one, especially, it's very filmic, very busy, very fluid.
In the pit Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra set down a magnificent soundtrack. The dynamic, sharply observant Pappano is as alive to the score's myriad intricacies as to its blockbusting melodramatics. And there can be no bigger compliment to the chorus and small-part principals that it is simply impossible to distinguish between them. They are as one ensemble.
So what of those "above the title" in the opening credits? Well, Andrea Gruber's Minnie is certainly robust. The American soprano looks and sounds like she could pack a six-shooter and break up a bar-brawl. But there is more to Minnie than first meets the eye and ear and Gruber doesn't give us a huge amount beyond strapping determination and big notes. And some of those are a little unruly above the stave - her laugh of triumph as she throws down the winning poker hand in act two might work better with the sound turned down - or off.
It's a paradox that an American soprano should lack the requisite Italian style for this piece. But it is a spaghetti western and I wanted more enticement and beauty from Gruber. I wasn't touched by her back-story in act one and only moved by the final scene because Puccini makes so damn sure of it.
As the wily sheriff Jack Rance, the American baritone Mark Delavan is physically and vocally pretty formidable. His moment of defeat in the crucial poker game is full of silent pent-up fury, though I've never really believed that he wouldn't see through Minnie's blatant cheating. It would take more than a couple of aces tucked under her garter to get one over on this lecher.
But the "prize", of course, is Dick Johnson, alias the bandit Ramerrez - and Jose Cura, looking as though he'd been built specifically for this role, is the best he has ever been. His animal magnetism counts for a lot here and, since the vocal requirements are all about swarthy, full-on, heroics, he was in his element, being resoundingly butch.
This is a smashing show, then. And Minnie does get her man - even if they walk, rather than ride, into the dawn, rather than into the sunset.
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