Financial Times, October 14, 2013
By Richard Fairman
Puccini, La fanciulla del West, Wiener Staatsoper, 5. Oktober 2013
Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann are the opera’s must-see couple for a generation  
Unlike Puccini’s most popular operas, La fanciulla del West tends to come round only when there are singers who can do the leading roles justice. Now that the Vienna State Opera has brought together Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann, it is a fair bet other opera houses around the world will suddenly rediscover this undervalued Puccini masterpiece.

Stemme and Kaufmann look set fair to take their place as the opera’s must-see couple for their generation. She has the vocal power and lack of fear for the role; he boasts the film-star looks and brooding sensuality. Together, brandishing their guns and cowboy boots, they get as near to a Hollywood star duo in a Wild West romance as the world of opera ever plausibly does.

Fittingly, the Vienna State Opera has put together a new production for the occasion. Its producer, Marco Arturo Marelli, wants us to see La fanciulla del West as a gritty modern drama, so out go the traditional saloon bar and log cabin, and in come a trailer park café and ugly piles of shipping containers. There is an extra dash of sex and violence, but any pretence to realism is wilfully tossed aside in the final minutes, when a multi-coloured balloon flies Minnie and Dick Johnson up and away to a happy ending. Even the cheesiest Hollywood Western rarely goes that far.

The rich playing of the Vienna orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst shows up the colour and detail of Puccini’s score to spectacular effect, albeit at a volume so high that barely a word could be heard for the first 15 minutes. Tomasz Konieczny makes a steely-voiced Sheriff Rance and there is a decent posse of supporting singers.

All go towards creating a well-knit backdrop for the central couple. Maybe Stemme’s tomboy portrayal of Minnie, not helped by a frizzy red wig and jeans, could do with a touch of glamour, and Kaufmann’s dark, warm tenor misses Italianate zing, but they play well together, even managing not to look like embarrassed opera singers when they are called upon to roll amorously on the floor. Marelli’s balloon could be just the first stage in this operatic pairing’s world tour.

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