Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, 15, 18, 21, 24, 28 September, 1 October 2005
José Cura and Andrea Gruber (photo: Catherine Ashmore)
After the success of his operas up to and including Madama Butterfly, Puccini could afford to spend more time in choosing subjects which were different in style and form from anything he had already written.
His mid- to late-period operas are, in consequence, amongst his most innovative.
The fruits of this artistic freedom include the semi-operetta La rondine, the trilogy of contrasting one-acters Il trittico, and the depiction of the California gold rush, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West).
La fanciulla was ideal material for Puccini in this mood. The setting of the Far West challenged him to create a new kind of musical ambience; the tenor is unconventionally cast as a bandit on the run rather than a straightforward romantic hero; and the conclusion sees the lovers ride off into the sunset together, eschewing the typical Puccinian death scenes of Bohème, Butterfly et al.
Perhaps because it does not conform to the stereotypes established by his earlier works, La fanciulla has never been one of Puccini's most popular operas, despite its many innovations. Yet the unveiling of Piero Faggioni's production at the Royal Opera House in the 1970s brought it back into the limelight, leading to further productions at the Met and elsewhere.
The 'Bond' films designer Kenneth Adam's utterly stupendous sets were a real landmark in operatic staging, and it's no wonder that Antonio Pappano, the current music director, wanted to revive the production to open the fourth year of his tenure.
Pappano led his marvellous orchestra in a vivid account of the score, bringing out every nuance and emotion with utter conviction. In fact, they contributed the most satisfying aspect of the performance (apart from the beautifully refurbished sets, which remain something special in this seventh revival), because few of the singers were ideally suited to their roles.
The American soprano Andrea Gruber returned after her mixed success in January's Turandot to sing the titular 'Girl', Minnie. On one level she never quite fitted the role vocally, sounding harsh and lacking the creamy tone of Carol Neblett, her predecessor when the production was new in 1977 (later captured on film in 1982). Yet Gruber acted well throughout, and was genuinely affecting in the second act when she has to cheat in a card game with her admirer, the sheriff Jack Rance, to save her lover Dick Johnson (the bandit Ramerrez in disguise). There was a chilling silence in the House at this moment, indicative of a performance which was dramatically engaging but musically uneven.
The starriest name in the cast was the Argentinian tenor José Cura, taking the role of Dick Johnson which will forever be associated in this production with Plàcido Domingo. Despite being hailed as Domingo's heir in the mid 1990s, Cura has never had the Spaniard's golden tone. Like Gruber, however, Cura managed to identify well with the character he was playing, so this was never boring to watch. The only real disappointment was the famous aria Ch'ella mi creda, which lacked the pathos of Domingo's performance for example, because it was taken too quickly and lacked his more luxuriant voice.
Making his Royal Opera debut, American baritone Mark Delavan stood up powerfully to Gruber and Cura, although he backed off his aria, Minnie, dalla mia casa. Two of the best performances were given by veterans returning to roles they created in the original production: Francis Egerton as a characterful Nick, and Robert Lloyd still in fabulous voice as Ashby.
Some of the other smaller roles were also distinctively sung, most noticeably by Jonathan Lemalu (as the minstrel Jake Wallace), Mark Stone (an imposing Sonora) and the wonderful former Young Artist, Grant Doyle (Bello).
The evening got better after the first act, which lacked momentum and found even the enlarged male chorus unable to contend with the power of the orchestra (Puccini's largest apart from Turandot). Yet the intimacy of the second act brought some much-needed tension, the chorus was rousing in the final scene and the orchestra superlative throughout.
With time, perhaps the leads will settle into their roles, but either way the playing of the orchestra and the classic production (unseen here for over ten years) make this well worth your attention.