New York Times, 21 October 2013
Puccini, La fanciulla del West, Wiener Staatsoper, 5. Oktober 2013
The Wild West, Puccini Style 
VIENNA — Any director who stages “La Fanciulla del West” has got to be tempted to tamper with its setting. Puccini based his opera on David Belasco’s play, “The Girl of the Golden West,” about the blossoming of true love in a California mining town during the gold rush, circa 1850.

Yet golden or otherwise, the West is so deeply woven into the fabric of the opera that comparisons with Western imagery is inevitable. There is a saloon where whiskey is drunk “neat,” a hero-bandit who overcomes his deviant ways, a high-stakes poker game and, finally, a ride into the proverbial sunset.

For Puccini admirers, “Fanciulla”— the first opera to have its world premiere at the Metropolitan opera, in 1910 — is a work of great musical richness but one eclipsed by the popularity of operas the composer wrote earlier. Yet its story is constructed around a familiar operatic love-triangle. Minnie, a woman who exists amidst a throng of miners, may lack the vulnerability of other Puccini’s soprano heroines, but her love for the tenor, Dick Johnson, redeems him from his criminal past, while the baritone, Sheriff Jack Rance, lusts after her in vain.

By rights, “La Fanciulla del West” ought to be accepted as readily as “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot,” as an opera with an exotic setting reinforced by dabs of local color, but its Western details keep emerging as cliché-ridden distractions. It would be a fool’s errand to insist on downplaying them, but at least a production can avoid matching them with an equally cliché-ridden set. Marco Arturo Marelli, in his generally persuasive new production at the Vienna Staatsoper, updates the action to roughly the present day yet keeps it securely rooted in the West. Puccini’s saloon operates from a trailer wheeled into a three-tiered encampment made of corrugated metal, where miners not only carouse but also freshen up after the day’s work and hang out. A nostalgic song, which makes one of the minders homesick, is heard from a cassette player, yet Sheriff Rance wears a fancy black Western shirt, and Act 3 brings a panoramic view of an unmistakably Western vista (Mr. Marelli also designed the sets and lighting).

No less a figure than the twelve-tone master Anton Webern in a letter to his mentor Arnold Schönberg, extolled the score of “Fanciulla” for its “entirely original sound throughout — brilliant, every bar a surprise.” It is full of modernistic touches, which are worked into Puccini’s overall style so skillfully that they might be overlooked. Even Debussy turns up as an influence (Puccini saw “Pelléas et Mélisande” and was taken by it) — music based on whole-tone scales is frequent. Time and again you think you know what is coming harmonically, only to hear a chord of unexpected complexity instead. The Americanisms built into the music are also appealing, including a cakewalk and a simple but infectious waltz that has the hint of a folk song and accompanies Minnie and Dick Johnson’s first dance. The orchestration is brilliantly colorful.

The Staatsoper offers a glorious opportunity to hear the music. The orchestra (whose members also constitute the Vienna Philharmonic) plays superbly under Franz Welser-Möst, who knows how to shield the voices from it yet lets it resound excitingly as the occasion demands. And the singers could hardly be better.

Nina Stemme, best known for her splendid Wagnerian portrayals, shifts to Minnie with ease. Although curiously costumed (by Dagmar Niefind) — she bounces in at her first entrance with red hair and overalls looking like Raggedy Ann — she soon has an arresting moment when, in teaching the miners about the bible, she becomes transfixed by the concept of forgiveness of sin, thereby foreshadowing the transformation of Dick Johnson. Ms. Stemme goes on to chart the development of Minnie’s character into a mature woman convincingly, and her voice — rich and true — sounds every bit as idiomatic in Puccini’s music as it does in Wagner’s.

Jonas Kaufmann, with ample experience balancing German roles with Italian ones, sings Dick with burnished tone that is possessed of both heft and ring. It is hard to imagine the waltz tune sung more ardently, and one admires the beauty and restraint, in lieu of grandstanding, that Mr. Kaufmann brings to the opera’s one distinct aria, “Ch’ella mi creda,” sung as it appears he is about to be lynched.

The character of Jack Rance is tricky, because his frustrated passion for Minnie is so strong that it can deflect the emotional focus away from the lovers. First, Rance loses a rigged poker game meant to decide Minnie and Dick’s fate, then he must watch helplessly as they achieve happiness together. Tomasz Konieczny sings strongly, with a snarl to the voice as appropriate, but Mr. Marelli errs centering on Rance at the end, who points a gun to his head as if suicide is next.

Better to have the lovers simply sail off together, as they do literally here in a colorful hot air balloon. It must be Mr. Marelli’s way of acknowledging the Hollywood-like ending, but it is modest compared with Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging in Amsterdam four ago (to be seen at the Paris Opera this season), which had a blond and glamorous Minnie, dressed in a strapless gown, make her third act entrance descending a staircase while MGM’s roaring lion was projected above. In any case, “Fanciulla” will always summon visions of Hollywood, and perhaps once in a while, if you can’t beat them, it may indeed make sense to join them. 

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