The audience for The Met's first performance of La fanciulla del West this season arrived loaded for bear. Not only were they disappointed that Jonas Kaufmann was not singing (he's slated for shows starting 17th October), but their disappointment was heightened by the fact that tenor Yusif Eyvazov was singing. Quite nastily, whispers were that he was only hired because he is married to Anna Netrebko, who, incidentally, was present, dressed to the nines. Well, to make a nasty story nice, Mr Eyvazov, after an awkward start, sang brilliantly. But back to him in a bit.

Fanciulla is Puccini's most forward looking opera, but one which is still on the fringes of his "greatest hits". It is among his "largest" works, in the vein of Butterfly, Tabarro and Turandot, rather than Bohème or Rondine, to be sure, and harmonically more complex. Indeed, much of the music has expressionist tendencies à la Richard Strauss or impressionistic leanings à la Debussy. There are odd moments of almost nothing but flute and harps. It is easy to mock for its setting and overt corniness ("Doo-dah day"), but while goldminers will be goldminers, Puccini works hard to delineate them and succeeds, to the detriment, one might say, of concise storytelling in the opera's first act.

But Puccini is superb at getting to the psychological core of his two main characters – both Minnie and Dick Johnson/Ramerrez give us their back stories and behave accordingly throughout the opera. Rodolfo and Pinkerton are simply innocently loving and caddishly opportunistic, respectively, but Johnson, on the run, is a victim of childhood circumstances and retains his goodness even when facing death. Cio-Cio-San and Mimì are doomed, but Minnie, independent, loving and energetic as a child, brings those traits forward. Minnie finds love the way the miners are hoping to find gold; and when she leaves them she gives them hope, and they understand. And as for Jack Rance, well, he is just a stock bully, apparently married but mad for Minnie.

Minnie, closer vocally to a Valkyrie than Mimì, is a sensational role, and few can scale it. Aside from the emotional rollercoaster, it is peppered with highs C, Bs and B flats, which are either cruelly exposed or must compete with the large orchestra. Eva-Maria Westbroek, a handful of split or flat high notes aside, met the dramatic demands brilliantly, and sang gorgeously and off the text. And she knocked the finales to Acts 2 and 3 out of the house. Mr Eyvazov, perhaps not a natural actor, has voice to spare. His sound is bright, almost brilliant, which is odd to hear in this dramatic role, but his phrasing, sense of line, and spectacular high notes should be heard more often at The Met. The gigantic ovation he received at the end made him drop to his knees. Anna should be proud and Jonas had better be on his guard!

The Rance, Željko Lučić, was announced as ill before the opera but after a few moments he came into his dark-hued, angry own, utterly despicable in his third act instructions to lynch Johnson, just as Minnie was coming to the rescue. The men's chorus – plenty of solo parts – were remarkable in Act 1 and both fierce and touching in the last act. Many eyes welled up in the could-be very hokey "Addio, mia California" final moments.

Giancarlo del Monaco's 27-year old production has little new to add to the basic plot, but on Michael Scott's monumental sets – a remarkably real saloon, a cozy cabin against the mountainous backdrop and a gloomy gallows spot in a square in an old western town – have enough life in them to help define the time, place and ethos. Conductor Marco Armiliato kept the drama high and the sweet moments honest, giving leeway to the singers to show off without bending the vocal line. The audience response could not have been more enthusiastically approving.