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Puccini's `La Fanciulla del West' turns 100

The Associated Press, Saturday, December 11, 2010, 7:38am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Puccini would have been proud.

Exactly 100 years after the Metropolitan Opera presented the world premiere of his "La Fanciulla del West," the company revived the spaghetti western on Friday night for its second performance this season.

Deborah Voigt, more renowned for her Wagner and Strauss than Italian roles, gave a riveting and moving portrayal of Minnie, the gun-toting owner of the Polka Saloon, set in a California mining camp during the 1849-50 gold rush. Marcello Giordani displayed a pinging tenor as her Dick Johnson (the disguised bandit Ramerrez), and baritone Lucio Gallo was the Snidely Whiplash-like sheriff, Jack Rance.

With dozens of audience members garbed in fringed Western wear and cowboy hats, it was a festive night in a Lincoln Center auditorium where tuxedos and evening gowns are more common.

At the old Met on 40th Street and Broadway, "Fanciulla" was the Met's very first world premiere. Based on David Belasco's play "The Girl of the Golden West," which Puccini saw in New York three years earlier, it starred Enrico Caruso as Johnson, Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Pasquale Amato as Rance. Arturo Toscanini conducted, and the composer was in the audience.

Prices were doubled to $3 to $10, and there was a report of tickets being scalped for up to $150. Applause caused multiple curtain calls after the first act, including a solo bow by the composer.

Despite its initial success, "Fanciulla" didn't prove to be as popular as "La Boheme," "Tosca" or "Madama Butterfly." It disappeared from the Met from 1914-29, 1931-61, 1970-91 and 1993 until now.

Giancarlo Monaco's 1991 production, only the fourth staging of the work at the Met, has the style of realistic sets the company frowns upon these days. There is a huge Polka Saloon with grand wooden beams, pretty snow falling outside Minnie's mountain cabin and a street near the camp that could pass for a movie set. Onstage horses add to the Wild West feel.

Minnie is an over-the-top, bravura role, a frontier woman of independence, strength and tenderness in a community of foul-mouthed roughnecks. After a couple of unsteady notes at the start, Voigt displayed a shining top that pierced through the sumptuous orchestration. But it was not just her voice that made it a memorable night. Her warm, endearing manner combined with an infectious stage-dominating moxie to make Minnie all her own. She was a force Rance just could not deal with.

Giordani, at times bothered in the past by back pain that caused his movement to be a bit stiff, was in fine form as Johnson, the former bandit redeemed by Minnie's love. His "Ch'ella mi creda e lontano (Let her think I am free and far away)" was a highlight of the evening and along with the lovers walking off to "Addio, mia California!"

Gallo was appropriately sinister and stiff. A fine cast was rounded out by Dwayne Croft (Sonora), Tony Stevenson (Nick, the bartender) and Ginger Costa-Jackson (the Indian mother Wowkle). Conductor Nicola Luisotti, who led Voigt's first Minnie in San Francisco last June, created a wonderful ebb and flow that drove the action thrillingly.

There are seven more performances through Jan. 8, with the finale simulcast in high definition to theaters around the world.

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Online:

http://www.metopera.org

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