La Fanciulla del West
Stemme; Antonenko, Lundgren; Orchestra and Male Chorus of the Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm, Morandi. Production: Loy. EuroArts/Unitel 2072594 (Blu-ray), 2072628 (DVD), 140 mins., subtitled
You've got to admire a production that opens with a wallop — "La Fanciulla del West," projected as an old-fashioned movie title to Puccini's opening chords, over a black-and-white vista of "Western" cliffs and plains. "Nina Stemme," shouts another — and there she is onscreen in high cowgirl drag astride her steed, wiping the sweat and dust from her forehead, galloping, dismounting and then running, running closer, still closer … and suddenly the flesh-and-blood, living-color Nina Stemme bursts right through the screen and onto the stage apron, a pair of six-shooters aimed and ready. There's no question who's the star of this show.
That first minute offers a fair clue to what Christof Loy's Girl is about — reconciling Puccini's operatic horse-opera with the silent-film and theatrical conventions of its era and the Regie of a century later. Of course, giving Minnie this terrific but unscripted entrance undermines her traditional (but also unscripted) punchy first appearance ten minutes later, firing her pistol to break up a barroom brawl. In fact, Loy has had her visible all along, in a little room stage right, from which she simply exits a foot or two to investigate her ragazzi's gunfire with a business-as-usual nonchalance. She's likewise deprived of her big (and even a sensible) entrance in Act III. The set in both outer acts — its designer, Loy's usual, is Herbert Murauer — is a plain paneled wall with concealed doors and a large window that opens up to become the Polka's bar. Close-up on Blu-ray, the singers' makeup looks overdone, but projected above the action in a silent-film accompaniment, it looks just right. Those little films, however, appear only sporadically, and without much apparent logic; in Act II, in fact, they vanish altogether until the climactic poker scene. That act is played in an old-fashioned box set, in an effective simulation of the theatrical sets and shadow-laden lighting of David Belasco's era. Consistency is the chief shortfall of Loy's generally laudable invention, which creates some wonderful moments — the miners sitting down with pens and paper for their bible lesson; Sonora's shy, at first overlooked, gift of his ribbon; Minnie's girlishly excited hopping into bed with Dick for some innocent spooning in Act II.
Stemme doesn't make every note sound easy (that first C, in "Laggiù nel Soledad," for example), but she makes them all sound dal cuore. She effectively dispatches both extremes of Minnie's range and, handsomely and warmly, everything in between, while creating a feisty, full-blooded, fully believable girl-woman. Her worthy "Mr. Johnson" is Aleksandrs Antonenko, in fine, shining voice and acting with winning conviction. Cone-headed John Lundgren is a potent, moving, even sexy Jack Rance; and among the uniformly fine supporting cast there are especially telling, endearing turns by Niklas Björling Rygert as bartender Nick and Ola Eliasson as "Sempre tu" Sonora. Pier Giorgio Morandi is the excellent conductor, with a real feeling for the Puccinian pulse: the little orchestral interlude in Act II, as Minnie and Dick prepare for bed, has a wonderful ebb and flow. At final curtain, the audience reacts with a clamorous, stomping, whistling ovation for a rediscovered gem — and it's not one clap or cheer more than this Girl deserves.
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