~ Author: Oberon
Monday October 8th, 2018 - While I did not have high expectations for this performance of Puccini's FANCIULLA DEL WEST at The Met, I promised myself that I would try to make it to the end, especially as the final act has some of Puccini's best-orchestrated music, and also provides an opportunity for the baritone singing Sonora - one of my favorite operatic characters - to shine.
The last time I attended a performance of this opera live was in 2010, with Elisabete Matos as Minnie. In writing about the Matos evening, I probably spent too much time rhapsodizing about Renata Tebaldi in the role. The Tebaldi Minnie, in 1970, is one of my fondest operatic memories, but I will refrain from re-living it here yet again.
In the interim, I've seen a wild and exciting rendering of the role by Radmila Bakočević (in Hartford, CT) and two well-contrasted but equally appealing portrayals by Maralin Niska and Arlene Saunders at New York City Opera. Martha Thigpen, Stephanie Sundine, and Stephanie Friede have been my other Minnies to date.
After waiting in a crowd for the ticket-takers to come up to the gate (late) and do their job, and waiting again for the auditorium to be opened (never on-time these days), I took my place and watched the house not fill up: a really shocking number of empty seats in the upper three tiers of the hall, including some virtually empty rows. I had received an e-mail last week offering $60 orchestra seats, and some people obviously took advantage of that; but still, the orchestra was far from full.
Marco Armiliato is a variable conductor; sometimes he's really 'on', while other nights he seems less focused. Tonight was a good night - a really good night - and from the opera's cinematic prelude onwards, the conductor and the orchestra made a grand impression. FANCIULLA, perhaps more than any of his other operas, shows Puccini's gifts as an orchestra and colorist. Tonight we heard the score in all its glory.
Drawing on a mix of singers who have graced this stage for years with those in the Young Artists Program, The Met assembled a superb ensemble of artists in the supporting roles that give FANCIULLA so much of its Wild West atmosphere. Every one of the miners had a distinctive vocal personality: Scott Scully (as Joe, presenting Minnie with flowers), the ever-fine Richard Bernstein (Handsome), Alok Kumar (Harry, confused about King David), Joseph Barron (Happy), Eduardo Valdes (Trin), Adrian Timpau (excellent as the homesick Larkens), Jeongchul Cha (as Sid, who cheats at cards), and Michael Todd Simpson (as Sonora, sick with love for Minnie).
Carlo Bosi (above) was a perfect Nick, the faithful bartender of the Polka. Oren Gradus sang Jake Wallace's ballad touchingly, and Matthew Rose was a powerfully-sung Ashby. In the one-line role of the Pony Express Rider, Ian Koziara made his mark.
An exciting brawl develops when Sonora jealously attacks Sheriff Jack Rance, who has boasted that he will marry Minnie. Maestro Armiliato stirred up a hornet's next here, really exciting, and this brings Minnie onto the scene, firing a shot to restore order.
Eva-Maria Westbroek had a true personal success at The Met in 2014 as Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth. In the previous year she had been miscast as Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, though she did all she could to make it work. I had no idea what to expect from her Minnie.
This evening, Ms. Westbroek's tone seemed sort of diffuse at first; but she quickly got things in gear. Despite some squally notes higher up, she sang with a fine dynamic palette and a real feel for the music. "Laggiu nel Soledad" was not her best singing, however, with a trace of flatness and a really unfortunate, desperate high-C (not even close, really).
Above: Željko Lučić, photo by Rui Camillo
That little 'aria' of Minnie's is in response to Jack Rance's "Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito" which shows the better side of the sheriff, whose feelings for Minnie are a mix of love and lust. Željko Lučić was on commanding form tonight, his singing dramatic yet alive also with nuance. He gave his monolog a powerful finish.
Entering the Polka to have his "hair curled", tenor Yusif Eyvazov as Dick Johnson (aka the gang leader Ramerrez) sounded really throaty at first. But even without seeing them from my desk, one could sense a chemistry between the tenor and Ms. Westbroek in their banter about having met before. The miners sing a charming waltz, beautifully done, as barmaid and bandit dance. They all head into an adjacent room to keep dancing.
Johnson's sidekick, José Castro, is dragged in for questioning. Noticing his master's saddle on the barroom floor, José plans to lead Ashby, the sheriff, and the miners on a wild goose chase to divert attention from a planned robbery of the saloon. Kidon Choi made a vivid impression as the wily José Castro, with strong and dramatic vocalism.
As everyone rushes off to find Ramerrez, the man himself, under his alias, emerges from the little ballroom with Minnie, and their polite, hesitant courting duet begins. By now, both singers were settled in and the scene was very expressively rendered even though Ms. Westbroek's high-B on "Su...su,,,su...come le stelle!" was not happy. Mr. Eyvazov sounded warm and steady in the duet's big melody ("What you cannot say has been revealed by your heart..."); and the soprano started using chest voice as she tells of the gold kept in a barrel near the bar. The two make a date to continue their conversation at her cabin on the mountainside. Minnie tells him not to expect much, and describes herself as "...a nobody, good for nothing..."
Johnson tells her she has the face of an angel, upon which declaration Minnie sighs as the curtain falls: genuinely moving to an old romantic like myself.
At this point, I had to decide whether to endure a 40-minute intermission or go home. Although there had been flaws in Act I, I curiously felt drawn to what Ms. Westbroek, and Mssrs. Eyvazov and Lučić were conveying in the words and music. Every five or ten minutes, I made up my mind to leave. But something kept me there.
Act II was thrilling. I had moved to a seat with a view, which of course enhanced the performance for me. But I'm sure that I would have been just as drawn in without seeing the stage. The three principals really were invested in what they were doing; passions soared, and their voices sailed vividly into the House. By mid-act, I was ready to declare FANCIULLA the most exciting opera ever written and these singers to be the ideal cast.
Act II got off to a delightful start as two Met stalwarts - MaryAnn McCormick (Met debut 1991) and Philip Cokorinos (who debuted in 1985) - appeared as the unwed Native American parents, Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit. They have Met-sized voice and keen stage savvy, making their scene a perfect vignette.
The three principals were now on optimum vocal form: the soprano's top notes had stabilized considerably, the tenor's voice now free and clear, and the baritone was bringing a dark, Scarpia-like thrill to his singing. I became thoroughly engrossed, stopped taking notes, and fell under the kind of spell that opera so rarely casts these days.
The poker game was every bit as fascinating as it should be, with unbearable tension simmering under the hushed voices of Minnie and Rance as they dealt and discarded their cards. The deciding game is played. Rance lays down a winning hand, and Minnie collapses in a faint, crying to Rance to fetch her a glass of water. She surreptitiously pulls out the cards she had stashed in her stocking and hides the hand she'd been dealt.
The sheriff gloats: "I know why you've fainted! You've lost!"
"No...it's from joy! Because I've won...! "
An agonizing pause, and then Ms. Westbroek sank into a guttural chest voice for the opera's iconic line: "Tre assi e un paio!"
In silence, Rance fetches his hat and coat and bids Minnie goodnight. Minnie cries out ecstatically, then clasps her wounded lover in her arms. "He's mine!!"
There should have been a mammoth ovation here, and solo bows. Instead, the applause lasted only seconds, and the house lights came on. A big part of me wanted to stay, to celebrate this unexpectedly exciting evening during the final bows. I would have yelled lustily. But the chasm of another deathly dull intermission stood in the way; it would be after midnight before I'd get home. In my younger days I would have held on to the end. But now, I haven't the patience. And I shouldn't need it. These endless intermissions are a serious deterrent to enjoying Met performances.
Above: Ms. Westbroek and Mr. Eyvazov in a Ken Howard/Met Opera photo
To everyone involved - onstage, backstage, and in the pit - "Bravi Tutti!"
Metropolitan Opera House
October 8th, 2018
LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST
Dick Johnson............Yusif Eyvazov
Jack Rance..............Zeljko Lucic
Sonora..................Michael Todd Simpson
Jim Larkens.............Adrian Timpau
Jake Wallace............Oren Gradus
Post Rider..............Ian Koziara
Billy Jackrabbit........Philip Cokorinos