Perhaps it was Toscanini, ticked off by all the talk about his cuts, his re-orchestration, his version of La fanciulla del West, when every change made before the opera’s 1910 première was done collaboratively and with Puccini’s full co-operation. Whatever, some mischievous gremlin has held sway over this much anticipated première of the critical edition of the score. First the originally announced Marcelo Álvarez vanished, replaced by Roberto Aronica. Then Eva-Marie Westbroek, battling a cough and cold, skipped Sunday’s dress rehearsal and the hum of rumor began to build until the theater announced her withdrawal from the first three performances Monday evening. Barbara Haveman had been found to substitute. With less than 24 hours before curtain-up, there was barely enough time for stage and orchestra rehearsals and none to learn any new material. Haveman sang the role she already knew with a few negligible additions. At least one entire scene had to be cut – Act I’s encounter between Minnie and Billy Jackrabbit, first brought to light by Leonard Slatkin at the Met. In an unusual move, RAI cancelled its live radio broadcast. And if all that were not enough, a rogue stage microphone in place for the TV and radio broadcasts began amplifying and distorting any singer near it and even occasionally transmitting the prompter’s cues.

<i>La fanciulla del West</i> at La Scala © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
La fanciulla del West at La Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

It is one thing to substitute for an ailing colleague; quite another to make your La Scala debut at the same time. However, once Haveman mastered her nerves and her voice settled, she grew into her role both vocally and dramatically. The precipitous vault to a high C in “Laggiù nel Soledad” caught in her throat and was cut short, but her subsequent high notes had power, focus and resonance. The breadth of Minnie’s tessitura challenged her middle to low range where she was often inaudible. A rambunctious orchestra in Act I didn’t help. She negotiated the middle to high range well, however. Once singer, orchestra and conductor are more familiar with each other, there is bound to be improvement.

Claudio Sgura towered over everyone like a redwood and with a dark, burnished baritone to match. His Rance was no one-dimensional Scarpia clone. This sheriff’s thwarted passion was part and parcel of a lifetime of disappointment. Roberto Aronica has everything Johnson requires except charisma. Four-square phrasing and a somewhat wooden demeanor undermined a consistently supported tenor voice with a pleasing timbre and ringing high notes.

Barbara Haveman (Minnie) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Barbara Haveman (Minnie)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The miners are the fourth protagonist in Fanciulla, so when the curtain rose for bows, it rightfully rose on the men of the La Scala Chorus. The fervent applause which greeted them and chorusmaster Bruno Casoni was more than well deserved. They and the comprimari were outstanding as singers and as actors.

Equally outstanding was the La Scala Orchestra. There is nothing like this orchestra when it’s at its best, playing the composers it knows best. Riccardo Chailly had them performing at the top of their game. Under the circumstances, it seems unfair to single out one section, but the woodwinds – so important to this score – deserve particular praise for the color and mood their attention to accents, dynamics and phrasing created.

Scholars have suggested recently that Puccini’s interest in movies led him to develop musical equivalents of cinematic techniques like the jump cut and the dissolve. Robert Carsen similarly takes his cue from film, in this case the classic westerns of John Ford, weaving many of their familiar tropes throughout his superlative production.

Act I opens in a cinema, with the chorus and comprimari watching the final frames of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. The Polka recalls Buffalo Bill’s Irma Saloon in Wyoming. Minnie makes her entrance against a backdrop of Ford’s favorite location, Monument Valley. Act II evokes silent film with its black and white sets and costumes, references to Victor Sjörström’s The Wind and opening and closing grainy celluloid effect. Two brief scenes in Act III are projected simultaneously on the backdrop, while the chase is depicted with stock black and white footage of galloping horsemen in hot pursuit, a young John Wayne recognizable in one brief snippet.

Barbara Haveman (Minnie) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Barbara Haveman (Minnie)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Carsen’s final, brilliant coup de théȃtre brings us full circle. Act III’s pine forest disappears to reveal Minnie totally transformed into a glamorous movie star standing beneath the Lyric cinema’s brilliantly lit marquee announcing, “Now Playing The Girl of the Golden West”. There she pleads for Johnson’s life. He reappears similarly transformed into a matinee idol and they exit arm-in-arm while the miners line up bereft, pay their admission, and enter the Lyric, singing their sad refrain, “Mai più tornerai, mai più”.

La Scala might not have had all the right cards in its garter Tuesday night to improve a hand of aces and spaces, but it’s hard to play without a full deck in the first place. Cut and deal, boys; the next hands could be winners.

****1