Tuesday, June 15, 2010

San Francisco Opera, "La Fanciulla del West," June 12, 2010

I once asked Salvatore d'Aura - a former assistant to Puccini - why La Fanciulla del West isn't performed more often. He replied that it demands a soprano of near-superhuman abilities. Watching my first-ever Fanciulla - and a near-superhuman performance by Deborah Voigt - I was reminded of last summer's SFO production of Porgy and Bess. Both works represented unprecedented fusions of ethnic forms - and both were far too ahead of their time to be truly appreciated.

Fanciulla incorporates American folk forms like ragtime (even a quote from "Camptown Races") but is clearly composed from Puccini's ever-evolving Italian palette, including oriental touches influenced by Madama Butterfly. But perhaps the more fascinating experience is witnessing Puccini's steady advance into through-composing, and his ability to turn his music on a dime to reflect temporal conditions in the drama (e.g., the snowstorm in Act II). This "crop-shot" effect would greatly influence the development of the Hollywood soundtrack. Considering his life-long obsession with theatrical realism (and a long line of exhausted librettists to prove it), it's easy to see Puccini developing into the ideal 20th-century composer, were it not for the throat cancer that cut short his life.

This realism is also reflected in Fanciulla's characters - a love triangle reminiscent of Tosca, but each of its members much more nuanced. In a gold rush mining town deprived of female company, Minnie reigns over the Polka saloon much as Tosca reigned over the concert hall. Her primary admirer, Sheriff Jack Rance, is given to Scarpia-like abuses of power, but is often held back by a tender side. And Minnie's mysterious lover, Dick Johnson - far from the idealistic artist of Cavaradossi - turns out to be a Mexican bandit trying to kick the family business.

The secret of SFO's success is a beautifully cast central trio. As Rance, Italian baritone Roberto Frontali is solid from moment one, creating an alpha-male presence in the saloon without ever seeming tyrannical. His singing is resounding and lovely, beginning with his backstory aria, "Minnie, dalla mia casa." As Dick, tenor Salvatore Licitra takes a while to warm up, not really finding his energy till the second act, but taking flight from there. His performance of the opera's only self-contained piece, "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano," as Dick faces the hangman's noose, is passionate and powerful, marked by gorgeous top-notes.

As for our Ms. Voigt, I literally cannot say enough. In her first-ever Minnie, she demonstrates an amazing timbral range, singing arias like the Act I "Laggiu nel Soledad, ero piccina" with a bright Italian lyricism, but pulling out her customary Lady Macbeth flamethrower for moments like the climax of Act II. Winning Dick's freedom in a card game with Rance, she throws down her cards with a delicious vengefulness. Her performance in Act 3, as she trades on her years of devoted service to save Dick from the noose, is intensely moving.

Stage director Lorenzo Mariani marshals his troops with style, creating one of the most action-packed productions I've ever seen, complete with a good old-fashioned barrom brawl choreographed by Jonathan Rider. Chorus director Ian Robertson and his men create a group of rowdy-but-sensitive '49ers, while Nicola Luisotti and orchestra bring out the exceptional power of Puccini's score.

The hometown crowd was well aware of the opera's unique California setting, particularly when someone announced that Dick "must be from San Francisco - he wants his whiskey with water." A poignant supporting turn is delivered by tenor Steven Coles as bartender Nick. Gotta love the product-placement supertitle, "It's a great day for Wells Fargo," especially with a full-page Wells Fargo ad in the program. Puccini's particular approach to through-composing often means turning a single line into a mini-aria, illustrated by Minnie's line to Dick: "How often I hoped to see you again." This seemingly simple phrase takes a dramatic upward flight before settling back down to a sudden shyness.

And then there's the Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing. The Puccini estate sued the composer for purloining the climactic phrase of Dick's opening aria, "Quello che tacete" for Phantom of the Opera's "The Music of the Night." Hearing the phrase in its original context, there's no doubt it's an exact copy. What's worse, Puccini uses it as a recurring motif for the Dick-Minnie romance, and every time it comes back my brain drags it into that insipid song like a Pavlovian dog. (The suit was settled out of court, and I think I'd like a cut.)

Voigt made her Act 3 entrance on Whiz Kid, an 11-year-old carriage horse from Martinez, then repeated the trick for her curtain call. Amazingly calm animal, and accompanied by two of its owners just in case. Voigt and Luisotti will both appear in the Metropolitan's 100th anniversary of Fanciulla's premiere (first performed at the Met December 10, 1910, with Puccini overseeing the production).

Through July 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the award-winning opera novel Gabriella's Voice, available at amazon.com.

Image: Salvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson, Deborah Voigt as Minnie. Photo by Cory Weaver.

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