San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West this month was my first time seeing it on stage after decades of opera-going. It’s a very weird work, even if you accept all the California gold miners singing in Italian and sounding like – well, like characters in an opera by Puccini. It’s just a natural cycle in art for the sweet perfection of Raphael to give way to the expressive distortions of Pontormo and El Greco, and I’m happy that for once in the schedule the sweet perfection of Boheme has given way to this rarity, or oddity. I admire Puccini for always trying something new, and if the result is as mixed as the combo Italian/English title then that’s just what can happen if you strike out into new territory.
It’s especially strange to see Fanciulla in the Bay Area, where every reference to Sacramento or Wells Fargo Bank and other local landmarks elicits chuckles. (There are also murmurs every time we hear the theme now associated with Music of the Night from Phantom of the Opera. It makes for a murmuring crowd.) It’s very odd to be in the Golden State, thinking we’re the goal of America’s westward expansion and the cutting edge of America’s future, and to see the two lovers stride away from us to start a new life. But aren't they already where you're supposed to go for a fresh start? Haven’t they read Joan Didion? Of course, she’s been back in New York for years, and California is currently leading America’s decline into fiscal collapse and deteriorating social services.
The triumphant lovers are the Mexican bandit Ramerrez and Minnie, saloon gal extraordinaire. Ramerrez is incognito under the unfortunate pseudonym Dick Johnson. Maybe Seymour Butz was already taken. When Minnnie asks him his name the surtitles tactfully elide over it, in no doubt justified fear of letting loose the inner-thirteen-year-old boy in all the dowagers at the opera. Actually, to my right there was not a dowager but girl of about twelve or so. I thought at first she was shifting in her seat because she had been dragged to the opera and was restless, but she was just excited. Her grandmother told me that they were going to the LA Ring cycle the next week. I was very envious. Her (the little girl’s) favorite opera is Turandot, which she saw at the Met.
I’m a little embarrassed at myself, snickering over “Dick Johnson,” but there’s so much strange sexual stuff going on right below the surface of this opera, right down to Minnie winning the men over at the end by finally tossing away her, yes, pistol, that’s it’s a little difficult not to react to signifiers that don’t really signify anything. I was a little surprised the opera was post-Freud, but perhaps it’s all just a case of a cigar sometimes being only a cigar.
Ramerrez was portrayed by Salvatore Licitra. I’d heard him in recital but this was my first time seeing him on stage. Licitra was fine though his voice didn’t strike me as exceptional. He had an unfortunate moment or two; at one awkward passage the dowager in front of me (well, one of the dowagers in front of me) sort of clawed at the air and I thought she was sharing my distress but her movements were, it seems, actually indicative of ecstasy. Unfortunately his leading-man voice comes with character-actor looks. A dashing appearance could go a long way to selling you on a fairly thin and conventional gallant outlaw.
So he’s kind of a Joaquin Murietta type. And his gal Minnie is a weird mash-up of Diamond Lil and St Maria Goretti. One minute she’s zinging one-liners like a seasoned Catskills pro (“I can’t marry you – your wife wouldn’t like it!”) and the next she’s piously insisting that her American Indian maid, Wowkle, must marry the father of her young child, or blushingly confiding in Dick Johnson that she’s never ever been kissed. I don’t think “kiss” is a euphemism here. That is one well-behaved mining camp. Minnie seems like a natural precursor to Turandot, the ice princess waiting to melt. There's a very Italian preoccupation with the Madonna/whore complex transposed into the unlikely setting of Gold Rush California. Contemporary Italian patriots attacked Puccini (according to the program) for yet another non-Italian setting, which shows you what they know and how much setting matters. Double good for Giacomo for ignoring those who would tell him what to write and for ignoring nationalists.
I’m Latin Catholic enough for Minnie’s character to make a certain kind of sense to me, but twenty-first-century American enough so that I can see the possibility that Minnie crosses the border into frigid-tease territory. I imagine it’s mostly the personality of the soprano that keeps her appealing, which makes this an excellent role for the always likeable Deborah Voigt. (This is her first time as Minnie, which I believe she will also be singing at the Met later.) I think the down-to-earth, good-humored Voigt is impossible to dislike. Her voice does sound different from earlier days; it has kind of a metallic tang to it, which is not unpleasant. The role is strange in that it doesn’t really have a big aria along the lines of Vissi d’Arte or Un bel di or In questa reggia, though it has what you might call big moments, which Voigt handled beautifully. This time the big aria goes to the tenor, as they’re about to hang him in Act 3.
There’s also a lynch mob earlier, in Act 1. I thought it was a little unfortunate that Sid, the cardshark who’s almost lynched, was played by one of the few black singers on stage (Kenneth Overton). When the libretto has the Indians saying “Ugh” three times in their very brief appearance, it’s probably best to avoid any additional unpleasant racial moments. Wowkle was Maya Lahyani, who with a few lines cemented the positive impression she made last summer as Beppe in the Merola presentation of L’Amico Fritz.
The man who prevents the lynching is Sheriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontali), who is the villain of the piece, though he seems like a more intriguing and even appealing character than Ramerrez, with a keen eye for keeping order among the naturally disorderly and an even-handed and interesting sense of what justice entails. He's not particularly villainous in the way that Scarpia is, but despite the inventiveness of Puccini’s rich and beautiful score certain operatic conventions must be preserved, and so soprano Minnie loves Dick because he is a tenor, and the baritone must be the heavy. I’d put him with Zurga in the Pearl Fishers and Alberich in the Ring as a character whose anger and bitterness make him more complex and even sympathetic.
The first act is a series of vignettes that emphasize the difficulty, isolation, and loneliness of the locale and its inhabitants (it’s similar to the method of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead). There are some striking soft moments for the chorus (all male; except for the very brief appearance of Wowkle, Minnnie is the only woman on stage). But generally all was quite loud: conductor Nicola Luisotti consistently had the orchestra at a level that made the singers force their voices a bit to be heard. This must have been a deliberate choice, but I’m not sure what the artistic gain was.
The second act opens with a view of Minnie’s lonely cabin perched high up in the mountain pass, with a steady fall of theatrical snow outside it, an effect that was lovely but (I would have thought) not all that unusual for experienced theater-goers, but around a third of the audience was so astonished by it that they burst into applause. You can see why I feared their theatrical sophistication might not bear up under the use of “Dick Johnson” as a pseudonym.
Though Minnie rescues the wounded Ramerrez from Sherriff Rance by playing (and cheating, which I guess is OK because it's for love) at cards, the bandit has somehow been separated from her before Act 3 and is about to be lynched. She rides in on a real horse (and Voigt looked great on this handsome animal, but the horse was too obviously being led for it to be quite the coup it should have been) and pleads with the men to release Ramerrez. Though they’ve all been in love with her (someone could have made a fortune in that camp by bringing in a few women of less rigid morals) they agree (once she tosses aside her little pistol) that she should have the man she has somewhat mysteriously claimed as her one true love. The chorus sings movingly as Minnie and Dick walk off hand in hand.
The performance of the first act was a little rough, the second was better, and by the time the short third act rolled around (after a second interminable intermission) Fanciulla was victorious. I could (and did) sit there and think of all the ways the ending was forced, improbable, or ridiculous, and none of it mattered. I surrendered completely to the beauty of the moment. That’s why people sometimes call opera absurd, but it’s not: the music has the power to go below, around, or above the logical (or whatever the theatrical illusion of the age is) into a deeper, more powerful and primal logic, and to touch us in the murky hidden realms where our deepest fears, hopes, and passions lie curled and waiting in the dark. As the last note sounded the 12-year-old girl next to me jumped up and exclaimed, “That’s a great opera!” And you know what? She was right. I mean, sure. Why not?