In a spacious sawdust-floor saloon, a tawn-haired woman by the name of Minnie reads the Bible to a group of men who listen adoringly. Their rapt expressions contrast with the raucousness they demonstrate in a fight they engage in moments before. When the young lady dressed in a tan leather outfit makes a stalwart entrance and quiets the unruly men by shooting a few bullets, we understand that her strength of character belies a great maternal tenderness. She seems to be the only woman for miles around -- there are only two female characters in the opera -- and the men gravitate towards her to find a sense of direction.
These are simple miners, and after Minnie reads a verse from Psalm 51 (“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean”), one of them looks down ruefully at his dusty shoes and reminds her that no hyssop grows in the arid Californian climate. Her shining eyes and ardent smile reveal an underlying warmth as she earnestly provides her interpretation of the passage: “Joe, each of us keeps a sprig of it in his heart”. She poetically attests to the “supreme truth of love” that will triumph, no matter how forsaken one may appear to be in an often lawless and lonely world. The men hang on to her every word.
Insights from Met Opera During Live HD Intermissions
And so do we while Minnie is on stage during the Met’s Live in HD Broadcast of Giacomo Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, which tells a story of redemption with overwhelming musical and dramatic generosity.
As we learn during the informative interviews in between acts, Puccini had a proclivity for exotic locales, whether they evoked Paris, China, Japan, or the American West during the Gold Rush of 1849 in this 1911 commission for the Metropolitan Opera. Puccini's visit to New York in 1907 marked him profoundly. A play he saw by David Belasco -- a native of San Francisco and the playwright whose works also inspired Madame Butterfly -- moved him greatly. He was especially captivated by the goodness and charm of the gun-slinging heroine: the fiercely sincere woman at the heart of a new world. California was a real place, and yet to Puccini it also was the mythic and golden state at the end of the rainbow. Its dimensions were larger than life, but it was the psychological complexity of the deeply-nuanced characters that fired Puccini’s imagination.
The opening prelude with its brash fortissimo whole-tone scales, suggests the vast and untapped promise of an undiscovered land, while unstable augmented harmonies evoke the forbidding friendlessness of such wide expanses. Arias are rare in Puccini’s rich sound world of rebellious dissonance and soaring melody, almost as if the characters are too complex to express themselves straightforwardly. The subtext is inscribed in the music. Dick Johnson is an outlaw Minnie loves while remaining unaware of his criminal background. A gauzy offstage male chorus often shadows his lines (when he bids Minnie not to cry, for instance); it seems to represent the tentative probings of his guilty conscience as he deceives the innocent and trusting Minnie.
The orchestra throbs with a visceral vitality that runs throughout like a relentless locomotive, led by conductor Marco Armiliato. In a scene in which Minnie plays poker with Rance, the lecherous sheriff who will dishonor Minnie if he wins the parry, tense 16th notes in the bass section mirror our anxious heartbeat. Move over Hitchcock! Judging by the audible gasps from the audience, there could be no suspense more masterfully composed; we are left with a shared empathy and concern for the lives of the characters on stage.
Eva-Maria Westbroek in the Love Duet from Act II (albeit with Yusif Eyvazov, a different tenor).
Womanhood in the Wild West
In this writer’s view, some moments are so theatrical in nature -- such as Minnie's collapse after winning the poker match -- that they could seem histrionic in the hands of a lesser actress. However, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s sincerity and commitment render them absolutely real. She is a warm-blooded human being and not a character on a stage. We are both humbled by the generosity of her portrayal (tiger-bright, intense, and earnest to a fault) and it becomes surreal for us to see her emerge from the wings shortly after, looking frail and drained of energy as the cameras trail after her. She is able to navigate the dichotomy between the dignity arising from her unabiding love for others and a maidenly vulnerability. Act I gives her ample opportunity to render the intricacies of her character. She commands our respect for refusing the sheriff’s advances (“I live alone because I like it”). The next moment, she calls upon her “friend” -- her trusty pistol -- to defend women and children, and as further evidence of her integrity, she refuses to apologize for her decision to wait for the right man (“I only spoke my mind”). At the same time, she is artless and charming as she draws her legs up to her chest and reminisces on her childhood (“How my parents loved each other”). Westbroek is almost fifty years old, and yet, we see in her the nubile excitement of a girl who has never been kissed and who optimistically believes in the all-encompassing nature of love when directed towards one person for life (“In my heart I feel sad that I’m so small. I want to lift myself up to you...Up, up, up to the stars!”). We experience a salutatory chill in our spines as she sings with intensity “how I long to find a man I truly love” and Johnson, her future love, simultaneously makes a proleptic entrance into the saloon. The dramatic demands of a given moment inform her masterful choices as an actress and interpreter: her slight pause of concern as she compassionately tries to teach the sheriff what love truly is, the dartiness of her retort when Johnson attempts to be suave (he quipping “there are some women we [men] would have for an hour and then die” and she replying “How often have you died?”), and the bitterness and savagery of her exclamations when Johnson ostensibly betrays her. In this writer's view, Westbroek’s ample and quasi-Wagnerian voice may not necessarily always possess the agility or limpidity of a more lyric soprano. However, her dramatic sincerity and musical imagination more than make up for a lack of these aesthetic qualities.
Romance from a Ruffian
The writer believes that tenor Jonas Kaufmann and she display undeniable physical chemistry. From the moment the brass sounds out his theme, which rollicks and syncopates like a cakewalk ragtime, Kaufmann impresses with his detailed acting and swaggering presence. In the judgement of the reviewer, although Kaufmann lacks the brilliancy and ring in the tone that the role requires, he delivers messa di voces at crucial moments so disarmingly that one can not help but be vicariously affected by his ardor. Certain details reveal his careful study of his bandit character: his wide-eyed admiration as he intones “you’re a pure, good-hearted girl”, the faltering hands betraying his guilt at keeping his identity from his lover, his teasing sensuality as he sings “I like to hear you talk that way” and, in Act 2 “how pretty you are” as the strings shiver with longing. The Christian theme of forgiveness resonates especially in his regret as he dreams of redeeming himself with “a life of love and work” -- in other words, through Minnie’s love -- and in his final aria “Ch’ella mi creda”, which expresses the desperation of a man besotted by the dirt of life and robbed of the “lone flower” that could render it bearable.
A Stellar Supporting Cast
Željko Lučić’s Rance arrests our attention with his sybaritic voice; the authoritative climax of “Minnie, dalla mia casa” is thrilling in its intensity. Lučić portrays the bitterness of a man who cannot understand purity and genuine attachment and therefore resents it. Throughout the opera, Rance ruminates over Minnie’s choice of a flawed man for a lover and enviously attests to what he considers as his own comparatively “gentlemanly” behavior. Perhaps due to his social function as a sheriff, he does not acknowledge that his selfishness and licentiousness make him a criminal of the heart. According to this writer, Lučić’s scenes with Westbroek are magnetic, and they are especially impressive in cinematic closeups, which amplify the characters’ reactions.
La Fanciulla del West features perhaps one of the most fascinating supporting casts Puccini ever devised. In this production, every miner is individualized and richly embodied. Oren Gradus renders the homesickness of his character Jake with touching delicacy, while Sonora undergoes a trajectory from gruff stoicness to gentlemanly sympathy for Minnie’s pleas. The messenger destined to be hanged makes the most of his defiant entrance in Act I, while Wowkle, Minnie’s Indian servant, sets off laughter in the audience when she spies on the lovers and looks Johnson up and down appreciatively.
Visual Resplendence and Redemption
Giancarlo del Monaco’s 1991 production features horses and several striking visual tableaux. These include a dance in which Johnson sweeps Minnie off her feet to the hushed murmurings of the other men, a scene suffusing the exulting lovers in blue light under falling snow, and a somber opening in Act 3 distinguished by ghostly buildings in chiaroscuro hues. Interview segments serve as an added treat for the HD viewer. A question-and-answer session with fight director B.H. Barry follows the first act, in which he speaks of his profession with the relish of a delighted boy. We are also granted the opportunity to meet the horse Minnie rides.
In the Met’s broadcast of this production, the music becomes the fabric of the reality the performers have created with meticulous attention. At the conclusion of the work, the gravitas of a basso ostinato kindles pity for Johnson as he stands helplessly before the men who want to hang him. Minnie arrives to save him with an impassioned plea, during which she throws herself in front of her lover and reminds the other men of all the hours she has devoted to caring for them and their families. Sheriff Rance attempts to thwart her appeal by crying out “are you scared of a dress?”. Disregarding him, the miners bow in awe before Minnie’s benevolence, which protects her from their gunfire more than her pistol ever could. We learn of the supreme truth of love in her triumphant iteration of the theme that opens the prelude: “there isn’t a sinner in the world who can’t find salvation”. The men Minnie has touched set Johnson free, and the pair is reunited to ride off into the great unknown beyond the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which glows amber as in a clement reverie. Genuine love can only be gained through sacrifice; the men mourn the loss of their golden girl as they sing a folk refrain (“Far away, back home, will they weep for me?”).
It is an ending that captures Puccini’s gift for magnifying the best parts of human nature and crystallizing them through his art.
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: MARCO ARMILIATO
Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Set and Costume Designer: Michael Scott
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler
Revival Stage Director: Gregory Keller
Cast: EVA-MARIA WESTBROEK, JONAS KAUFMANN, CARLO BOSI, ŽELIJKO LUCIC, MICHAEL TODD SIMPSON, MATTHEW ROSE, OREN GRADUS
LIVE HD MET BROADCASTS
Various dates and times from October 20th to May 1st, 2019.
$23 average price worldwide.
For information and to find cinemas near you, visit the Met: Live in HD website.