Puccini – La Fanciulla del West / Vienna Staatsoper, October 2013 (2)

(Previous section here).

So Minnie cheats, and wins. Meanwhile Dick is still bleeding. But he pulls himself together for Act III, where he is nearly hanged. But Minnie intervenes, appealing to the miners’ sympathy. This broadcast has German subtitles, and I was pleased to note that a word I learned reading Schiller, pflegen, “to look after” made an appearance on the screen – Minnie reminds one of the lost boys that she had gepflegt him when he was sick.

So they give up on having a hangin’ and Minnie and Dick climb into a brightly-striped hot air balloon and waft away into the sunset. (Betcha thought they’d hang him, and she’d jump into a mineshaft, right? No! This is the other kind of Puccini opera. Except that the last thing we do see is Rance pointing a pistol at his own head, so maybe not.) I will hand it to the folks at Vienna, they figured out pretty much the perfect way to stage the ending. I liked the balloon immensely.


It somehow matched Rance’s vaguely Village People-ish sheriff outfit. (There is a bit of an epidemic of leather pants in this production.) This is not to say that either the production or the performance is supremely goofy – both take the characters’ emotions and motives seriously. There’s just this little occasional touch of deliberate overkill that seems to acknowledge how silly the story can be, but does so in such a way that the effect is to say “ok, this is a bit silly” and then sort of contain that and allow everyone focus on the high drama.

The staging evokes the west, but not the west of 1850. Minnie’s saloon liks like a canteen at a mid-century industrial site. Lots of metal, brightened by some christmas lights and a few posters, including the famous “We can do it!” one from the Second World War. Minnie (Stemme) wears cowboy boots with overalls and a flannel shirt; her hair is bright pink. For the traveling musician’s song, Nick the bartender fishes out a tape deck. In the background there is a video game of some kind with flashing lights. It’s the west – when Dick nearly gets his hangin’ in the final act, there are two railway cars and mountains in the background – but it’s not the west of 1850.

The performers wring about as much out of this as you can. I watched this primarily for Nina Stemme – every time I hear her sing, I am fascinated all over again by that big solid wall of sound she produces. It’s massive and powerful, but expressive and flexible at the same time. (It was interesting hearing her speak in the little interview backstage at the beginning of the broadcast. Some sopranos and mezzos have speaking voices that sound surprisingly lighter and smaller than their singing voice,  but Stemme’s seems more of a direct translation from one to the other.) But anyway. The pattern with YouTube renderings of webcasts seems to be that there is significant sound distortion above a particular pitch and volume level, which meant that some of Stemme’s bigger moments were not well served by the recording; this was more true for the video of Act I than it was for Acts II and III. But audio issues or not, the interpretation was worth it. Stemme injects an air of maturity into the character – some of Minnie’s utterances in Act I that were probably originally meant to convey girlish innocence are done in a way that makes Minnie more knowing and world-weary than Puccini and his librettist might have intended. And she and Jonas Kaufmann (Dick) give the pair’s big moments all the power and drama you could want.

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