The Opera Critic, 23 October 2013
by Moore Parker
Puccini, La fanciulla del West, Wiener Staatsoper, 17. Oktober 2013
A gem to be treasured 
This production ranks in the top echelons of Vienna's current opera productions, largely due to the logical, sensitive, and wonderfully detailed direction by Marco Arturo Marelli and the superb reading from the pit by Franz Welser-Möst.

While the setting and concept may not be totally original, "Containerland" is put to good effect in Puccini's Wild West, well utilizing the State Opera's vast space horizontally and vertically, and offering cleverly considered potential to accommodate all three acts grandly yet succinctly.

A string of garish party lights adds colour to the grey atmosphere of the miners' routine of whisky and poker. A cassette recorder on the counter of Minnie's kiosk bar dates the period while lulling the diggers into a sentimental mood in Jake's Act I lament, and an elevated caravan houses the Act II tryst and ensuing drama, allowing visual contact with the surrounding space to heighten effect as the plot unfolds. Act III opens up the set to include a railway terminal whose buffers serve for improvised gallows, and the happy end sees Dick and Minnie carried off into their future in an enormous hot air balloon. This was a touch of kitsch, but a clever and inoffensive card (rather like Harold Prince's enormous sun for the finale in Vienna's 80's Turandot) to bring down the curtain with aplomb.

Marelli (in his first verismo production) has evidently worked meticulously with the entire cast, and the overall direction is testimony to an all-too-rare ability (both technically and interpretively) to harmonize with - and underscore - the music.

All three leads are monstrously testing - ideally requiring voices of Tebaldi, Corelli, and Guelfi calibre. Nonetheless, the current Vienna lineup manages to score with their mixed palette of assets.

Nina Stemme establishes a multifaceted and sympathetic Minnie. It is a delight to see the character develop as she moves from the dungareed tomboy to the passionate charmeuse and sly trickster with aplomb - full of subtle touches, and much vocal finesse.

Jonas Kaufmann makes an attractive, rather introvert bandit - perhaps a little too refined and squeaky-clean to be totally credible - but demonstrating lithe physical agility and a certain boyish charm. Not an Italian spinto by nature, he nevertheless negotiates the role with dexterity (if not reserve), playing his aces well in Dick's two big scenes where, above the stave, the true quality of his voice comes to light.

Tomasz Konieczny is much the modern sheriff, with a touch of a Yankee Scarpia who just occasionally exceeds the limit in musical taste and physical gesture. Undoubtedly, a Jack Rance to be reckoned with, and one with potential in all respects.

The male members of the State Opera chorus constitute the fourth "lead" in this work and appear totally in their element - emotionally touching in their sentimental scene with Jake and Larkens in Act I, and rising effectively to the heights of the dramatic finale.

The remaining cast included Norbert Ernst (Nick), Paolo Rumetz (Ashby) Michael Roider (Trin) and Clemens Unterreiner (Happy) - with particularly strong contributions from Boaz Daniel as a stalwart Sonora, Alessio Arduini as a vocally pristine Jake, and Jongmin Park as a sonorously black-timbred Billy.

Franz Welser-Möst evidently enjoys great affinity with the score, commanding an uncanny sense of timing and dynamics throughout. If not quite indulging his stars, his baton allows them to perfectly milk the moment - be it in Minnie's intimate reading lesson with the miners, or in the great romantic and dramatic outbursts of Acts II and III.

100 years have passed since the work debuted in Vienna, and 25 years since it was last seen here. This production has the ability to catapult Fanciulla into the list of Puccini favourites - and not just with the current cast. A gem to be treasured.

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