PUCCINI La Fanciulla del West
They have a good reason for mounting a new production of La fanciulla del West at the Royal Swedish Opera, as local-girl-made-good Nina Stemme has taken on the title-role. Christof Loy’s staging provides an effective showcase for her, not least by opening with a film of Stemme in full cowboy gear riding on horseback across the prairies of the Wild West. With tongue subtly in his cheek, Loy sets the opera in the silent film era, sometimes projecting short sections of the action on the back wall, but in other respects staying true to the opera’s story and characters. The filming is effective, though in close-up the singers’ pasty white make-up looks very odd. A more serious drawback is the very drab, utilitarian sets – one reason why this performance feels so disappointingly short on romance.
It could have been confidently predicted that Stemme would make a formidable Minnie. Although her voice has a rather thick, un-Italianate sound, she musters its heroic power impressively as the opera progresses, and her portrayal of Minnie as a tough cookie works well in this production’s gritty surroundings. Her Dick Johnson, Aleksandrs Antonenko, does not sound Italian either, though his tenor goes excitingly into overdrive as it rises above the stave. It is just a shame that he cuts an unromantic figure on stage. John Lundgren’s magnificently brooding Jack Rance dominates his scenes with ease, rather overshadowing the supporting cast of miners (John Erik Eleby’s vocally wobbly Jake Wallace is made up to look the spitting image of Charlie Chaplin). The conductor, Pier Giorgio Morandi, holds the reins on a reasonably taut performance but the orchestral sound lacks glamour.
It is not only a sentimental attachment to the old Royal Opera production, a 1970s cinematic epic with sets by Ken Adam (of James Bond fame), that makes me want to keep that at the top of the recommendations. Meanwhile, for a more modern take on Puccini, the Netherlands Opera’s controversial production on Opus Arte presents a glitzy parable of the American dream and features a comparably strong leading pair of singers.