Tuesday, December 07, 2010

My California

La Fanciulla del West -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2010
Voigt, Giordani, Gallo / Luisotti

It's a success that might have pleased Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the world premiere a century ago this Friday: not the greatest cast, not a showy production, but a conductor's triumph in summoning not only the sound but the spirit of a Puccini masterpiece -- here, the underappreciated Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West). SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti has made this undersold revival an event to equal or better the season's big-name extravaganzas.

That's not to knock the cast, who all come through to find the story's heart. The singing is all good enough, sometimes better, but that's almost beside the point. Forget that Deborah Voigt's post-fat voice still has its issues -- Minnie is a role she was born to play, the first big character that really seems to fit her own. She's so naturally fresh and bright even as she handles a barful of hard-drinking men, and there's nothing overwrought in her outburst at the newly-revealed Ramerrez: it's the wounded cry of love's first deep hurt. Marcello Giordani is in fine sonic form, but more impressive is the desperate sincerity his sturdy character shows in the solo moments. Even Lucio Gallo was decent vocally (less good on high notes), and managed to catch the not-quite-villainous menace of Rance. The miners were strongly cast, not least Dwayne Croft as Sonora and recent rat-king Keith Miller as Ashby, and forged a convincing communal space for the opera.

But everywhere and in everything was the incredible tapestry of sound Luisotti wove from this score. He got, as in his last appearance (a more famous Puccini -- Boheme), amazingly sensitive playing and texturing from the Met Orchestra, but this time outdid himself in a proportioned control of phrase, line, and ensemble that seemed to hold every performer infallibly in the flow of Puccini's magic. So supported, "good enough" from each was more than enough for the music to shine and the story to tell.

It is, of course, on the whole a tale about redemption -- the motif for which is the first tune to materialize in the prelude -- but for the principals there is first transgression. Sheriff Rance and Minnie between them hold the camp's destinies in hand: he protects the miners' worldly existence, while she ensures their civilized and moral aspect. But neither sticks to the part. Rance tries to use his mastery of what is (he commands law, guns, and money...) to buy what's not properly for sale or mastery -- Minnie's favor. And when Ramerrez/Johnson (whose initial intention to rob the camp sets off the crisis) arrives, Minnie not only minimizes and begins to abdicate her moral guardianship (talking down her place in life and falling in love with the outsider who will take her off), she outright cheats Rance to save Johnson's life -- and avoid having to marry Rance.

But while Minnie first brings redemption into the opera proper -- its music plays as she gives her early Bible lesson, that no one is beyond it -- Johnson's the one who precipitates the resolution as well. The redemption tune appears again as he changes his mind and vows to protect the miners' gold at Act I's end, and yet again as he agonizedly confesses himself to Minnie in Act II. The latter plea doesn't win her over immediately, but when he's subsequently shot Minnie begins to protect him from Rance despite knowing what Ramerrez/Johnson has done.

And she's perhaps right, if you look at the thing: having reformed, Johnson's no longer a worldly threat to the miners but a moral one -- the agent of their mine community's potential dissolution -- and therefore of Minnie's jurisdiction and not Rance's. But her first method can't be right... And at last, in Act III, Minnie (and Puccini -- Belasco does it differently, at least in his post-hoc story version) hits upon the masterstroke: appealing to their better natures, she offers the miners in lieu of herself -- no longer able to guide them in any case -- the opportunity to participate in a great and indelible moment of forgiveness and humanity. When Sonora takes it up, Johnson calls the men his brothers, and Minnie (with Puccini) makes a full invocation of redemption and love, it's as overpowering a finale as there is in opera, recalling the not-entirely-dissimilar end of Jenůfa. And, in fact, Jiri Belohlavek's 2007 work in that opera may have been the last guest effort to equal Luisotti's last night.

I feel sad for anyone who comes out of this remarkable revival with little but knocks on the score, vocalism, or whatever. My only knock is that the Met can't force Luisotti to stay in town and perfect the run of La Boheme.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.