San Carlo’s new opera season got off to a flying start with Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, which was quite an event in Naples. Fanciulla is habitually and properly staged like a typical western movie, introducing us to a saloon crowded with patrons who drink and gamble. Director Hugo de Ana, who also designed the costumes and sets, imagines the story of the bar owner Minnie, the only woman in the gold-miners’ camp, Sheriff Jack Rance and the bandit “Ramerrez” (Dick Johnson), as if they came from a Sergio Leone film.

<i>La fanciulla del West</i> © Luciano Romano
La fanciulla del West
© Luciano Romano

However, the director’s focus was on the homesick, lonesome miners struggling to make a living and longing for some sort of redemption, or for a happy ending to vindicate their desolate existence. When Minnie and Dick set off heading into the sunset, just like John Ford’s heroes, they are not accompanied by triumphant music, only by the sobs and sighs of the miners who wistfully realise that their fate is to remain in the camp. Puccini was not so good (and not so lucky, too – see his unfinished Turandot) at concluding operas with happy endings.

De Ana has been inspired by all the stylistic elements of the harsh, somehow poetic realism we find in Old West narrative. The filthy atmosphere of the saloon and the shabbiness of Minnie’s miserable hut he creates provide him with the appropriate settings for the tense atmosphere of the drama where love, action and despair perfectly mix. He was also able to get inside the innovative character of the score; Puccini anticipated (or, even better, influenced) the “western sound" as we hear it in successive Western film scores.

Emily Magee (Minnie) and Claudio Sgura (Jack Rance) © Luciano Romano
Emily Magee (Minnie) and Claudio Sgura (Jack Rance)
© Luciano Romano

Though structured around Minnie’s thoughts, emotions and actions, Fanciulla is, in a way, a choral work, with its 17 male characters and only one female (apart from a few bars for the Indian maid, Wowkle). They were all superb in Naples: the group of gold miners was made up of the San Carlo Chorus (instructed by Marco Faella), who all looked and sounded well balanced and immersed in the drama.

American soprano Emily Magee offered a performance as Minnie which was not so memorable. She has a nice tone, especially ringing in her top register. However in general her voice was not as convincing, showing a particularly disappointing coarse tone, mainly in the passages requiring lower register chest voice. She sang Oh! se sapeste” with some delicacy, and her final “E anche tu lo vorrai" with adequate dynamism and passion.

Claudio Sgura (Jack Rance) © Luciano Romano
Claudio Sgura (Jack Rance)
© Luciano Romano

Claudio Sgura, as the rough Sheriff Rance, was his usual imposing figure, exhibiting a round, full baritone voice. His was a sound and strong stage presence, his execution being elegantly delivered and technically precise. Roberto Aronica interpreted the role of Dick Johnson flawlessly, in perfect tune; with his outstanding voice and sincere interpretation, he was well fitted to the role both physically and vocally. His “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano” was both expressive and touching. The comprimario roles were excellently taken: Bruno Lazzaretti as Nick, Carlo Checchi as Jake and Alessandra Visentin as Wowkle, among others.

Roberto Aronica (Dick Johnson) © Luciano Romano
Roberto Aronica (Dick Johnson)
© Luciano Romano

The musical rendition was outstanding. Juraj Valčuha’s directorial flair made him conduct skilfully; he stressed the innovative traits of Puccini’s music with agile and straight tempi all the way through, as the orchestra sounded beautifully and neatly under his baton, and he showed careful control in the scenes where tumultuous group movements on stage could risk covering the voices.

Fanciulla is an underrated masterpiece, Puccini's most original opera and also his most symphonic score, with quite a Wagnerian continuum; its orchestration is full of nuances and was wisely rendered by Valčuha's sensitive and empathic conducting.