Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, in its new production by Marco Arturo Marelli, features excellent singing from top to bottom, tight orchestral playing, beautiful lighting, and a decisive lack of cowboys, saloons and other “Wild West” clichés. Set in a modern-day mining village in the middle of somewhere vast and gorgeous, the production focuses on the social interplay and struggles of the miners. Not to worry, though – for those who worry about an overabundance of verisimilitude, our lovers do get carried away in the end by a larger-than-life hot-air balloon.

Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Act I opens on three-tiered tenement housing in shades of blues and greens. Minnie’s bar is a square metal container, lit by fluorescent light and decorated by a large neon star. Men in coveralls and flannel shirts can be seen on each level drinking, hanging up their hats, and washing their hands and faces in basins. The song of the travelling minstrel Jake Wallace is heard through a makeshift radio in the bar, and brings an air of melancholy. Minnie (Nina Stemme) enters dressed as a lumberjack, complete with short, curly red hair, a flannel shirt and overalls which are neither flattering nor feminine. In fact, the audience has to suspend disbelief to see her, in this costume, as the object of desire for the entire crew – though the fact that she is the only female present in the first act (and one of two in the entire opera) helps considerably. The arrival of Johnson (Jonas Kaufmann) and their subsequent mutual infatuation was equally awkward; their dancing scene looked more like two French bulldogs pawing at each other than dancing.

Things got much more convincing in Act II, which is set in a side cut-out of Minnie’s simple residence, rustically decorated with a panoramic view of mountains in the background. After a packed first act, Minnie’s apparent love for her home conveys a welcomed sense of ease and beauty. She is much more believably garbed here, in a flowered dress and red shoes. Snow falling through much of the scene is beautifully lit – something that can be unequivocally said for the entire production. Minnie and Johnson enjoy a brief moment of happiness, which is destroyed by the arrival of the posse: Minnie realizes that Johnson is actually the bandit Ramerrez. The act climaxes with the dramatic poker game she plays against Rance (Tomasz Konieczny) to save herself and Ramerrez. In this production, Minnie wins by cheating – she pulls a few extra cards out of her garter while feigning shock.

Act III wraps up everything quickly. Rance hunts down Ramerrez, who is saved from hanging by Minnie, now in a floor-length red suede coat. She pleads his case and demands forgiveness from the miners. And lest this seem like a banal lieto fine, as Minnie and Ramerrez fly off in their massive, rainbow-colored flying balloon, Rance pulls out a pistol and aims it at his own head as the curtain drops. Moreover, remember how much novelty actually exists in Fanciulla itself: the bandit (aka archetypal “bad guy”) is a tenor instead of the traditional bass or baritone, and a strong female lead saves her lover-in-distress instead of being in need of saving.

Vocally things were wonderful from the get-go. Stemme was a powerful force, cutting through the orchestra in every part of her range with ease, and never seeming the least bit fatigued with what is by all measures a monster of a role. Kaufmann was beautiful and sang fabulously too. His “Ch’ella mi creda” in the final act was heartbreaking, technically brilliant and richly shaded. Konieczny shone as well as the embittered sheriff, possessing a remarkably dark and well-focused baritone sound. Of the plethora of minor male roles that dot the work, there was not a weak link amongst them, Boaz Daniel (Sonora), Jongmin Park (Billy Jackrabbit), Carlos Osuna (Joe) and Alessio Arduini (Jake Wallace/Jose Castro) arousing interest, just to name a few.

The orchestra, brilliantly led by GMD Franz Welser-Möst was also in top-notch form, if at times over exuberant in terms of volume, especially during the first act. Puccini’s orchestration in this opera particularly has been widely noted for its complexity and innovation, and it was well served by the Staatsoper orchestra, who brought the score to life with facility and energy. The efforts of all were rewarded with a standing house and numerous curtain calls.

****1