Notes and Editorial Reviews
Fanciulla is Puccini’s hardest opera to cast. The role of Minnie is unlike any other in his canon: Turandot is more direct, half the length, and rarely requires anything other than exclamatory singing; and Johnson is longer, higher, and louder than Calaf or Des Grieux. The opera also requires a bevy of singers who are interesting since the miners each have personalities and many have solos during the first half hour of the first act. It’s all exposition until Minnie arrives, and some find it too much. However, if you’ve got major voices and good singing actors in these roles, Puccini’s plan makes sense: in the opera’s last act, Minnie reacts to several of them individually, asking their pardon.
And anyone who isn’t touched by
Jake Wallace’s shockingly sentimental but beautiful tune in Act 1 either has a heart of stone or has only heard it sung poorly. On this new CD it is memorably sung by Franz Mayer, who, along with every other member of the cast save for the lead soprano and tenor, are new to me. I assume they are the house players of the Hamburg opera, and if “comprimario” invariably has a negative connotation, it loses it here. Every small role is well sung by a “real” voice.
But the trio of lead singers is the calling card. Carlo Ventre, a Uruguayan tenor who has barely been recorded–I have heard him only in a couple of the three DVDs and two CDs available, all in little-known repertoire–and whose career apparently is based in Germany and Italy (I could track only a few performances in the U.S., and none at the Met), is the Dick Johnson we’ve been waiting for. Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco in the 1950s and early ‘60s were the only tenors who could handle it (actually, Richard Tucker shone in the part as well), but then until Placido Domingo came along, the opera went dormant. He had a monopoly on it for years but always had trouble with the exposed high notes; Marcello Giordani was disgusting in the part, and lately, only the great Jonas Kaufmann has been singing it.
Ventre’s voice is even better suited to the part than Kaufmann’s; he may not have the textual nuance or soft notes that the German tenor excels at, but I dare say it’s been a long time, if ever, that I’ve heard a big voice sail through the part as Ventre does. He can also caress a phrase and is wonderful in the second-act love duet (the conductor opens some of the usual cuts in this Tristan-like fiesta) and delivers his two small arias with feeling and ease. It’s fearless, juicy, and musical singing at its best, but still, I have Franco Corelli’s voice ringing in my head.
By his side is the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, perhaps better known–and suited for–her German roles (and the infamous Anna Nicole). Minnie is Puccini’s Valkyrie, but a certain Italian morbidezza is still required, and (private) recordings of sopranos Dorothy Kirsten and Eleanor Steber in the part, not to mention the young Renata Tebaldi (on Decca) and Magda Olivero, prove that it can be accomplished.
If the natural timbre of Westbroek’s voice doesn’t offer such softness, her intelligent singing and phrasing make up for it: she is very tender with the miners while strict with Jack Rance; she’s first girlish and then passionate with Johnson, and when she feels betrayed in Act 2, her rage is palpable. She has little trouble with the weird coloratura Puccini throws at her as she describes riding her horse as a young girl (in Act 2-–a moment that makes Nilsson sound silly–only Kirsten gets through it perfectly) and her exposed high notes (more than Turandot, I’d guess) are right-on. Her poker game is as tough as nails, and her tender entreaties to her miner-friends in the last act are coupled with an ability to ride the orchestra like a pony. If there’s occasional strain when the tessitura remains high (the second-act duet), it never spoils the line. Her only competition lately is Nina Stemme, also more Germanic than not, and not as nuanced as Westbroek.
The British baritone Ashley Holland is neither Tito Gobbi (with Corelli on Opera d’Oro) nor Cornell MacNeil (with Tebaldi), not to mention the under-recorded, snarling Anselmo Colzani (on Myto, with Kirsten and Corelli), or the bronze-voiced Sherrill Milnes (with Domingo and Neblett on DG), but his good-sized voice suits the Sheriff Jack Rance well enough. He’s able to sound vulnerable in the first act when he tries to woo Minnie, and perfectly vile thereafter. I see from his bio that he sings Don Giovanni and Enrico (in Lucia); maybe Rance is a half-size too large for him. Still, no complaints.
As suggested, Sebastien Weigle leads a wonderfully integrated cast and performance, filled with excitement and tension. The recording is as clear as a bell and as spacious as Puccini’s expressionistic score needs. This is a fine recording; perhaps the best non-private one on the market, except for Tebaldi’s on Decca. There is no libretto–a shame, really.
-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
La Fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini
Peter Marsh (Tenor),
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Soprano),
Ashley Holland (Baritone),
Carlo Ventre (Tenor),
Simon Bailey (Bass),
Michael McCown (Tenor)
Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra,
Frankfurt Opera Chorus
Written: 1910; Italy
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