Puccini's down-to-earth realism and slice-of-life atmospheric scenarios are tailor made for the cinema. The big screen's embracing of larger-than-life passions and emotions fits Puccini's operas like a smooth, gorgeous, Italian glove. Some of the best Puccini operas on DVD indeed are films, not stage performances: Tosca (Domingo/Malfitano and Gheorghiu/Alagna), Madame Butterfly (Huang, Troxell) and La Boheme (Netrebko/Villazon). Although Christof Loy has made his mark as an opera director far more as a minimalist and modernist than an emotional sentimentalist, here he is beautifully, shamelessly echoing the golden era of film and TV Westerns in this touching 2012 Swedish Opera performance of Puccini's underappreciated La Fanciulla Del West (The Girl of the Golden West). Puccini's take on the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century is perhaps the first Spaghetti Western. Sergio Leone later became famous in the 1960s with his Italian cowboy films, "Fistful of Dollars," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and others. It seems the fervent Italian nature is sympatico with the bold world of the Western.
Loy has magnificently put the worlds of stage opera and film together here to stunning effect. The brief overture is treated to an ultra-wide, black and white, 1950ish movie reenactment on screen of a stunning western scene of wide-open vistas and gorgeous sky, with a lone woman riding her horse, as the credits roll. She gets off, starts running toward the front of the screen and suddenly there comes Nina Stemme bursting through the curtain onto the opera stage in full color, guns ablazing, as the "Polka" saloon keeper Minnie. Fabulous! You can see excerpts of it on youtube. From there, Loy tones down his tendency to spareness and modernity, and gives Fanciulla an evocative, eloquent reading. In a notable innovation, Loy continues with his Western movie nostalgia bent. In several scenes, the back wall of the Polka displays a fairly big-screen, black and white film rendition of notable scenes taking place on stage. Even in old fashioned, less than terribly sharp black and white (both adding authenticity), with vertical wooden slats slightly obstructing the view, I could not take my eyes off these filmic scenes. As they used to say in the "Lone Ranger" TV show, welcome back to "those thrilling days of yesteryear." The iconic legend of the Western lives on. Wonderful!
Of course, opera is more than that, terrific as it is. Vocally, the cast is outstanding. Stemme brings her superb dramatic soprano in a wistful, mesmerizing portrayal of the tough yet sensitive bar owner everyone loves. She may look a little long in the tooth, but Stemme dominates the stage in a winning and authoritative manner. Swedish baritone John Lundgren's Sheriff Jack Rance is somewhat understated but firm and dark in a convincing portrayal of the opera's heavy, and a joy to listen to. Latvian tenor Alexsandrs Antonenko is vocally resplendent but there is still room for him to grow in his portrayal of Ramirez/Johnson. His first scenic entry is less than dramatic (see a commanding Domingo here) although Loy or the filmmakers could have done more to help him. There are elements of the drama, anger and romance in the role he has yet to plumb, although Antonenko still comes across positively. He just needs some more seasoning, more oomph. Watch Domingo in any of his three DVDs or Fabio Armiliato, who may not quite have the voice of Antonenko but puts his all into the role (2005 Puccini Festival on DVD). The fine Swedish orchestra is led by Pier Giorgio Morandi, who displays authority, passion and flexibility in his reading.
Scenically, Loy offers a spare but genuine looking Polka saloon (for the full-blown Western treatment, check out the superb 1983 Covent Garden Domingo/Neblett performance or either Met DVD: 1992 with Domingo/Daniels or 2010 with Voigt/Giordano). Loy's cowboys and mine workers may have a bit too much of an airbrushed look facially (blu-ray reveals all), but they are costumed superbly and act like they are straight out of Dodge (or the Gold Rush). Loy is less interventionist than usual. The first two acts take place in the Polka and Minnie's house (the latter simply designed, with some charming old-fashioned wallpaper, a cross on the wall and other nostalgic touches) basically like Puccini intended. Loy moves act three from the forest outside town back to the Polka. Here Minnie is hidden away from the miners and Rance in the next room, listening in as they decide the fate of her lover, the scofflaw Ramirez/Dick Johnson. This brings an added insight and poignancy to the scene with Minnie knowing what is in store for him.
A fine performance then of an opera that unfortunately still needs championing. There are still doubters and it is not performed that often. True, Fanciulla does not have the famous, heart-stopping arias of Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme or even Gianni Schicchi. But it has wonderful melody throughout, heightened and advanced harmonies, a strong sense of drama Puccini was known for, a distinctive ending and some touching pathos; when Minnie and Johnson talk about "what might have been" at the end of act one, the heart bleeds. Admittedly, the first time I saw Fanciulla I thought - an operatic Spaghetti western, this just doesn't sound right. But after subsequent viewings, I came to see its abundant virtues and grew to love it. So it doesn't sound like a prototypical Western and it's in Italian. It's Puccini. Do the Japanese think less of Butterfly because it may not sound like Japanese music? Do the Chinese with Turandot or the French with Boheme? So why not an Italian opera about the California Gold Rush? If Sergio Leone can convince with Spaghetti Westerns, why not Puccini? Especially Puccini. Fanciulla has glorious music, colorful characters and a fine story with dramatic tension. Give this blu-ray, the Domingo Covent Garden or Armiliato/Dessi DVDs a viewing. They're all excellent.