Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Wild West, Puccini Style ; the Opera 'La Fanciulla,' at the Staatsoper, Updates a Love Story Set in 1850

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Wild West, Puccini Style ; the Opera 'La Fanciulla,' at the Staatsoper, Updates a Love Story Set in 1850

Article excerpt

The opera "La Fanciulla del West" at the Vienna Staatsoper updates a love story set in California in 1850.

Any director who stages "La Fanciulla del West" has got to be tempted to tamper with its setting. Puccini based his opera on David Belasco's play, "The Girl of the Golden West," about the blossoming of true love in a California mining town during the gold rush, circa 1850.

Yet golden or otherwise, the West is so deeply woven into the fabric of the opera that comparisons with Western imagery is inevitable. There is a saloon where whiskey is drunk "neat," a hero- bandit who overcomes his deviant ways, a high-stakes poker game and, finally, a ride into the proverbial sunset.

For Puccini admirers, "Fanciulla"-- the first opera to have its world premiere at the Metropolitan opera, in 1910 -- is a work of great musical richness but one eclipsed by the popularity of operas the composer wrote earlier. Yet its story is constructed around a familiar operatic love-triangle. Minnie, a woman who exists amidst a throng of miners, may lack the vulnerability of other Puccini's soprano heroines, but her love for the tenor, Dick Johnson, redeems him from his criminal past, while the baritone, Sheriff Jack Rance, lusts after her in vain.

By rights, "La Fanciulla del West" ought to be accepted as readily as "Madama Butterfly" and "Turandot," as an opera with an exotic setting reinforced by dabs of local color, but its Western details keep emerging as cliche-ridden distractions. It would be a fool's errand to insist on downplaying them, but at least a production can avoid matching them with an equally cliche-ridden set. Marco Arturo Marelli, in his generally persuasive new production at the Vienna Staatsoper, updates the action to roughly the present day yet keeps it securely rooted in the West. Puccini's saloon operates from a trailer wheeled into a three-tiered encampment made of corrugated metal, where miners not only carouse but also freshen up after the day's work and hang out. A nostalgic song, which makes one of the minders homesick, is heard from a cassette player, yet Sheriff Rance wears a fancy black Western shirt, and Act 3 brings a panoramic view of an unmistakably Western vista (Mr. Marelli also designed the sets and lighting).

No less a figure than the 12-tone master Anton Webern in a letter to his mentor Arnold Schonberg, extolled the score of "Fanciulla" for its "entirely original sound throughout -- brilliant, every bar a surprise." It is full of modernistic touches, which are worked into Puccini's overall style so skillfully that they might be overlooked. Even Debussy turns up as an influence (Puccini saw "Pelleas et Melisande" and was taken by it) -- music based on whole- tone scales is frequent. Time and again you think you know what is coming harmonically, only to hear a chord of unexpected complexity instead. …

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