PUCCINI La fanciulla del West
Any new recording of Fanciulla confronts the most troublesome opera of Puccini’s maturity, though since this one is live, it’s at least relieved of expectations of studio-standard atmospheric effects. Still, the wild west setting’s rough-and-tumble language clashes strangely with the innate stylisation of operatically sung words, unlike the undiluted folk idioms Benjamin Britten used to create Americana in Paul Bunyan. Fanciulla’s one great tune – Andrew Lloyd Webber all but quoted it in Phantom of the Opera – is strangely confined mostly to the orchestra. Even the big love duet has mostly declamatory vocal lines, suggesting that Puccini was searching for some sort of Americana language – and in 1910, before the mythology of the west was codified. Though Puccini heroines usually have a determined dramatic trajectory, here Minnie is curiously torn between out-toughing the men around her and wrestling with a crippling sense of feminine inadequacy as she falls in love with outlaw Dick Johnson. Vocally, near-Wagnerian amplitude is essential in the title role, but that quality can put the opera’s intimacy out of reach.
This performance is one you’d happily encounter live (as this was in 2005). Casting is strong, the plain-Jane acoustic is clear, and stage noise is manageable. Nobody pretends that this is anything but an Italian opera. The drawing card is Daniela Dessi: her big, warm, Italianate voice clearly arises from the same gene pool as Renata Tebaldi’s – a significant plus – though Dessi’s vocal mileage is evident in Act 1 when gear shifts are audible. In the following two acts, though, language projection becomes paramount, allowing Dessi to make an excellent stab at revealing Minnie’s inner life.
As Dick Johnson, tenor Fabio Armiliato hasn’t any great vocal richness until he hits the upper reaches of his range in Acts 2 and 3. Lucio Gallo’s few rough edges feel perfectly right for sheriff Jack Rance. The rest of the cast are vocally nondescript but dramatically alert. How far conductor Alberto Veronesi goes beyond good operatic traffic management is hard to say, given that the recording doesn’t favour the orchestra. Among live recordings, the main alternative is the blazingly charismatic Eleanor Steber conducted by Dmitri Mitropoulos – though in 1954 sound quality.