Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West divides opinion. You’re either on board (or willing to forgive) the kitschy Americana, the composer and libretto’s romanticisation of the frontier, and the repeated “hello”s and, yes, “dooda day” choruses, or utterly turned off by this Italian opera set in gold-rush California. This reviewer is firmly in the first camp, delighted and swept away every time by the pure Hollywood of Puccini’s Girl. Its masterly symphonic bones, impressionist borrowings, and allusions to Wagner and Verdi aside, the Wild West becomes the stage for a story about moral redemption, forgiveness, and true, earth-shattering, momentous love.
This Pentatone release is a worthy account of Puccini’s masterpiece, conducted by Lawrence Foster and featuring a solid cast of ascendent singers. As Puccini’s titular heroine, American soprano Melody Moore proves she’s one of those vanishingly few singers of real charisma. Her increasingly mega-watt instrument emphasises the character’s warmth and humanity, and she convincingly captures Minnie as both intrepid frontierswoman and young woman on the brink of first love. In the most taxing passages, Moore betrays some stress – some of her high notes take a moment to become truly steady – but this matters little in the face of her passionate, nuanced portrayal of Minnie.
As Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez, Marius Vlad sings with great commitment and focus, though his lean tenor right now lacks the power needed to convey the larger moral and existential crisis that that the character faces. Still, he sings with palpable passion, urgency, and a ringing upper register, and he and Moore have real chemistry. His Ch’ella mi creda is is noble and moving.
As Jack Rance, Lester Lynch is a commanding vocal presence, offering up a resonant portrayal of a sheriff not only venal and covetous, but truly dangerous. His feelings toward Minnie are touchingly conveyed, but quickly engulfed by jealousy and a desire for vengeance. Like Johnson, his take on the character is not yet fully formed, but it remains formidable.
The opera contains plenty of small roles that pack a punch in the right hands, and many of the cast here rise to the occasion. Most notable are Amitai Pai, a dulcet-toned, loyal Nick who is quietly heroic in his own way, and Kevin Short’s Sonora, courtly and possessed of a powerful, rich bass-baritone.
Leading the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Lawrence Foster doesn’t give into the cinematic quality of Puccini’s score so easily, giving a more measured account that spotlights the voice and melodic line. This works well for the slow burn of the first act but takes some wind out of the sails of the famous poker scene whose climax simply demands a balls-to-the-wall approach. The all-male chorus is mostly on fine form but lacks some of the clarity needed to bring Puccini’s polyphonic score to life.
All in all, this is an admirable recording worth checking out, especially for Moore’s performance and the subtleties of the overall cast.
Work: La Fanciulla del West
Performers: Melody Moore s, Lester Lynch bar, Marius Vlad t, Transylvania State Philharmonic & Choir/Lawrence Foster
Label: Pentatone PTC5186778 (2CD)