The Girl of the Golden West was the play by David Belasco upon which Puccini based his opera La Fanciulla del West. The frisson that attaches to this particular HD presentation by the Met reflects the fact that the 2010/11 season marked the 100th anniversary of the opera’s successful world première at the Met – an occasion that saw the composer supervise a production designed and directed by Belasco, conducted by Toscanini and starring Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato.

Mention the name Puccini, and immediately one beautiful aria after another runs through the mind’s ear. But Fanciulla is not that; indeed, as the Met program notes, for Fanciulla, “Puccini explored new musical horizons... and most of the music relies on changes of tone and color instead of set pieces.” The orchestration is Puccini’s largest with two harps and more winds, brass and percussion than in his other operas. The melodic lines are more integrated into the sweeping flow, and the shorter and sparse arias are woven into the fabric of the overall composition with an emphasis on musical characterization but without losing any of what could be said is Puccini’s “trademark” – the emotional pull of one’s heartstrings. Puccini himself declared that this was his finest opera.

In this performance, conductor Nicola Luisotti brings out the subtleties and complexities of the rich score, making transparent the nuanced, pictorial elements (eg. in Act II the sound imitation of Dick Johnson’s dripping blood). But, of course, Luisotti had a superb, virtuoso world-class instrument – the sensitive and responsive Met Orchestra.

At its heart, Fanciulla is a simple melodrama set at the time of the California Gold Rush (1849–50), and the Met’s appropriately realistic production by Giancarlo del Monaco (from 1991), with sets and costumes designed by Michael Scott, evokes the period with stage pictures that would be right at home in any standard Hollywood Western movie of the 1930s and 1940s. And this Met production literally realizes the genre of “horse opera” with actual equine appearances on the stage.

In the title role is one of the Met’s star sopranos, Deborah Voigt, whose seemingly natural portrayal of Minnie, the tender-hearted owner of the Polka Saloon, justifies her being viewed as “The Golden Girl of the West” (not least because of her shining blonde hair). She makes a rootin’ tootin’ entrance in Act I, shooting her rifle to break up a barroom brawl among the miners. Voigt gives the impression she’s having fun on stage, and she’s in reasonably good voice throughout in a role that requires stamina, a wide range of emotions, extended conversational passages and high-note climaxes.

Minnie’s love interest, the bandit Dick Johnson, a.k.a. Ramerrez, is sung by Marcello Giordani with a solid, if at times stolid, tenor, and in fairly strong voice. While appearing somewhat less natural on stage than Voigt, Giordani does rise to the occasion so that the scenes and duets with Voigt are potently conveyed. However, in the famous Act III aria, “Ch’ella mi creda” – the most traditional and “Puccini-like” aria of the opera – he misses the emotional punch (certainly in contrast to Plácido Domingo, who sang this role when the production was new at the Met in 1991).

Baritone Lucio Gallo plays the “bad guy” role of unsavory Sheriff Jack Rance, who, despite having a wife far away at home, professes to love Minnie. Minnie doesn’t return his love, and thus his jealousy inspires his antipathy toward Johnson. The Act II poker scene in which Minnie cheats Rance to save Johnson is done very well here by Voigt and Gallo, confirming this as a dramatic highlight of the opera.

The very fine supporting cast has a number of standouts, including Keith Miller singing the Wells Fargo agent Ashby and Met stalwart Dwayne Croft as Sonora.