La Fanciulla del West
Frazzoni, Amadini; Corelli, Ricciardi, Gobbi, Sordello, Zaccaria; Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan, Votto. Text and translation. La Scala Memories 4
On December 10, 1910, Puccini's La Fanciulla del West was the first opera ever to have its world premiere at the Met. The cast, headed by Caruso, Destinn and Amato and conducted by Toscanini, was treated to forty-seven curtain calls, shared with the triumphant composer. Critical appraisal was somewhat less enthusiastic, with the most level-headed reaction coming from Richard Aldrich of The New York Times, who recognized and admired the advances in the composer's harmonic style and dismissed the widely held notion that Puccini was merely imitating Debussy, whose work he had acknowledged admiring. Aldrich left it to the passage of time to determine the level of Puccini's success. To those of us who adore Fanciulla, it is incomprehensible that it's never caught on to the degree of Butterfly, Bohème and Tosca, a trio recently joined in popularity by Turandot. Anton Webern, writing to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, deemed Fanciulla "a score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise … not a trace of kitsch." To be unable to see past the sometimes-quaint merging of the Italian sensibility with the California gold-rush backdrop is to miss the explosive power, riveting tension and vivid portrayal of the desperate human condition inherent in the Fanciulla score — as well as the skill with which it is all realized.
Fanciulla-lovers who know this document of a 1956 La Scala performance often cite it as their favorite, and it's appropriate for La Scala Memories to include it in this series. Gigliola Frazzoni, just twenty-nine at the time, is a true throwback to the great veristas who preceded her in this role, giving every bit of her heart, soul — and voice — to the music and characterization. Frazzoni's Minnie fairly leaps out of the speakers; her fragility, courage, longing and despair tug at the heart of the listener. It's impossible to point to a moment that stands out, because it all does, from Minnie's entrance to her final measures, bidding farewell to her beloved California and her "boys."
The power of Frazzoni's volcanic outbursts is matched by the Ramerrez of Franco Corelli, whose irresistible bandit seems to inspire white heat. The tenor's spinning, soaring vocal line is limitless in terms of volume, beauty of tone and passion. Both arias, "Or son sei mesi" and the better-known "Ch'ella mi creda," present the tenor at his best; his duets with Minnie balance Ramerrez's tenderness and concern with desire — both for her and for a new start — in a way that is very moving. Tito Gobbi is, as one would expect, the perfect Jack Rance. The famous snarl in his sound is put to good use, but we also sense the character's inner pain, Minnie's power over him and Rance's inability to become his better self and win her over. Frazzoni and Gobbi really cook in the Act II poker scene, achieving just the right blend of theatrical and natural in their delivery. The miners, an ensemble of terrific Scala regulars of the time, include Franco Ricciardi as Nick, Enzo Sordello as Sonora and the sonorous Nicola Zaccaria singing Jake Wallace's haunting serenade.
Antonino Votto, a former assistant to Toscanini — and later the teacher of Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti — was sometimes dismissed as a "routinier," perhaps because he was a very good Italian conductor in an age of great ones. Here Votto is on fire. Beginning with Puccini's brief but striking prelude, Votto's reading seems to explode from the score with all the vitality required for this work, but there is also sweeping lyricism in the great passages of love and tenderness. This balance of unbearable tension (in Act II) and melodic outpouring (the final ensemble with Minnie and the miners has never been more transcendent) demonstrates Votto's understanding of the piece. Only in the often-tricky musical number fifty-eight in Act II does Votto briefly lose his soloists, but it's not the maestro's fault: it's Frazzoni who's lost, while Corelli lays out for a few words! Recorded sound is somewhat murky, but acceptable as a trade-off for a performance of such power.
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