Wednesday December 22, 2010 - I chose the one performance in the Met's current run of Puccini's FANCIULLA DEL WEST where Deborah Voigt was not singing Minnie. Some people who saw Voigt in the role said she was better than they expected (faint praise) and some said she was worse. In the clip I heard she wasn't sounding so hot. So I picked up a ticket to hear the Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos (photo above).
Is it fair to compare a current singer with a monumental performance of a given role from the past? No, but every opera queen does it - even if subconsciously. In March 1970 I attended a performance of FANCIULLA at the Met that was a huge personal triumph for Renata Tebaldi. People who never saw this soprano in the theatre listen to live recordings of some of her performances - especially those from later in her career - and hear the effortful top notes and wonder what the fuss was about. Well, this is why you have to experience opera right where you're supposed to: in an opera house.
Tebaldi was so fascinating that afternoon - her voice was huge, with a radiant warmth in the middle register and a chest voice to shame most contraltos, and her characterization of the saintly but sublimely human tavern-keeper who cheats at cards to save her lover's life was rich in detail and extremely moving in its sincerity and warmth. Phrase after phrase and gesture after gesture from that portrayal are totally etched on the memory: I don't need to listen to it - every nuance is unforgettable.
Tebaldi went to a casino to learn the art of card shuffling and dealing from a professional. In the House and on recordings of that broadcast the sound of the cards being shuffled and dealt creates a palpable effect as Minnie and the sheriff Jack Rance play the three hands of poker that will decide the fate of the outlaw Dick Johnson. One of the best exchanges in the opera comes as Rance, looking at the injured Johnson slumped at the table, asks Minnie: "What do you see in him?" to which she quietly replies: "What do you see in me?" Moments later, having been dealt a bad hand in the final game, Minnie feigns a fainting spell. While Rance gets her a glass of water, she pulls out winning cards that she has secretly stashed in her stocking. Rance lays down his cards - three kings - saying: "I know why you've fainted: you've lost!" But Minnie stands up and replies: "No! You're mistaken. It's from joy! I have won!!" and there Renata Tebaldi slapped her cards onto the the table and in a adrenalin-charged chest voice shouted: "Tre assi e un paio!!" The furious sheriff stalks out as Tebaldi embraces her wounded lover "He's mine!!!" she cries out and then, just as the curtain fell, she flung the entire deck of cards into the air. The ovation was unbelievable.
So...what can compare to this? Every soprano who tackles this role sings the same lines, plays the same card game, tosses the cards into the air in triumph. Why is it that this one interpretation remains such a touchstone? Well, it is just that intangible something that makes certain performers immortal.
After such an experience, why bother to go see other divas tackle the role when you've seen it done to your complete satisfaction? It's the hope - however unlikely - that someone else might draw equal to that remembered performance. Thus I have thoroughly enjoyed a procession of other sopranos in this opera: Maralin Niska, Martha Thigpen, Arlene Saunders, Stephanie Sundine, Radmila Bakocevic, Ghena Dimitrova. It's a great vehicle and I loved what each of these women brought to it. I had always hoped that Leonie Rysanek or Hildegard Behrens might have tried the role; it's a tough one - Leontyne Price was undone by it but the great Dorothy Kirsten made it her own.
And so tonight at the Met I tried yet again to keep the memory of Tebaldi's Minnie at bay long enough to see and hear what Ms. Matos could do. The Portuguese soprano scored a fine success.
For all the Gold-rush of passion, tenderness, despair and hope written into the vocal line, it is the orchestration that makes FANCIULLA so enjoyable. Puccini spins seemingly 'authentic' cowboy songs into his rich verismo mix; the big orchestra transports us to another time and place. The effect is cinematic, vivid. And there are dramatic masterstrokes such as the spare, pulsating heartbeats of the lower strings as Minnie and Rance play the decisive poker game.
Conductor Nicola Luisotti did a superb job in bringing out all the instrumental colours, the alternating currents of pathos and humour and the feeling of wide open spaces that the score evokes. To his detriment he sometimes unleashed too much sound, covering the voices.
The many characters who live in this world - the center of which is Minnie's Polka Saloon - were richly portrayed and sung by a collection of Met comprimarios, from the long-experienced Philip Cokorinos (as Billy Jackrabbit) to novices like Edward Parks who created a touching cameo as Jim Larkens, the miner so homesick he collapses in despair. Tony Stevenson was magnificent as Minnie's faithful bartender, Nick, and Richard Bernstein gave a strong performance as Bello. Jeff Mattsey as the bandit Jose Castro and Kevin Miller as the Wells Fargo agent Ashby were excellent, and Adam Laurence Hershkowitz sang the role of Happy with clarity and nice dynamic variety. Oren Gradus sang affectingly as the camp minstrel Jake Wallace.
The real hero of FANCIULLA is neither the outlaw Dick Johnson nor the sheriff Jack Rance but the gold-hearted miner Sonora. Although we don't know much about him, and he has no aria or narrative, Sonora's deep and hopeless love for Minnie is a steady thread that runs thru the drama. It is he who erupts in fury when Rance declares his intention to marry Minnie, igniting a brawl. But earlier, it's Sonora who rallies the men to take up a collection to send the lonely Jim Larkens back home. And in the end it is Sonora who persuades his fellow miners that they must let Minnie have Dick Johnson; he watches the lovers ride off into the sunset while his own dreams are shattered. Dwayne Croft gave a moving and impressively sung portrayal of Sonora.
I was surprised to see Lucio Gallo cast as Jack Rance since my experience with him have been in lyric or comic roles. But his bio now lists such demanding repertory as the Dutchman, Scarpia and Wozzeck and sure enough when he started singing it was clear he's evolved into a strong and authentically Italianate baritone. The character of Rance is ambivalent: he's got genuine feelings for Minnie that go beyond just wanting to loosen her corset, and he's in an unhappy marriage. But he is also cruel and manipulative. Bottom line: he's human; I don't really see him as the villain of the piece.
Marcello Giordani gave another maddeningly uneven performance as Dick Johnson. Phrases of beauty and power were mixed with sharp singing and a bit too much of a sob. His lower register is non-existant. Maestro Luisotti's over-eager hand on the voume control sometimes forced the tenor to the brink.
Ms. Matos has a mature instrument with an appealing spinto timbre, a warm middle range and strong but un-forced lower voice. Her diction and sense of Italian style seemed especially convincing and she did interesting things with the conversational passages. Her first foray to the top in the aria 'Laggiu nel Soledad' was a bit desperate but as the evening went on her high notes began to flash out and she sustained them to exciting effect. Her acting was endearing and her Minnie had the audience in her pocket almost from the start. At the end of Act I, when Johnson tells Minnie she is far from being 'obscure and good for nothing' but rather that she is an angel, Ms. Matos reacted with modest disbelief. She played the poker scene to the hilt and was very moving in the final scene as she went from one miner to the next - all of them in love with her - reminding them of things she had done for them and asking them to spare her beloved.
The audience gave the soprano a hearty ovation and it would seem that Ms. Matos could be an asset at the Met: she sings Isolde, Tosca, Sieglinde, Turandot. We'll see if she gets invited back.
The production ends weakly, though. The miners follow Minnie and Dick as they leave town. Rance, alone onstage, shrugs melodramatically - the audience giggles - and then kneels in despair. Is he indifferent or crushed? Whichever, the laughter is most unwelcome at that point.
Yet again the horribly extended Met intermissions drained the life right out of the evening. There were tons of empty seats ar the start and even more as the performance went on. It sometimes feels like the Gelb administration is doing everything in its power to kill opera.
Shortly after they started admitting ticket-holders, a woman fell down two carpeted steps leading to the orchestra level. She laid there for the longest time as staff and security hovered over her and the incoming crowd were diverted around her. It did not seem to me that the fall could have imperiled her in itself so perhaps she had gotten dizzy and passed out rather than simply tripping. Ten minutes later, from upstairs, I saw she was still lying there. Insurance claim.