By Richard Fairman

PUCCINI La fanciulla del West
There have been several other worthwhile DVD releases of La fanciulla del West in the past couple of years but nobody is likely to question the unique selling point of this one. Bringing together Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann for the first time as the opera’s central couple, and with Kaufmann making his debut as Dick Johnson, the Vienna State Opera knew they had a winner on their hands.

One might expect that the colourful setting of Puccini’s Wild West opera would be a gift to any director, but few productions stay true to the composer’s intentions. Marco Arturo Marelli’s staging in Vienna, new in 2013, is mostly conventional, but updates the action to a gritty working milieu in the present day, preferring down-to-earth Italian verismo to romantic escapism. The first act takes place in a warehouse complex of corrugated iron with the Polka saloon reduced to a caravan selling refreshments. In Act 2, Minnie lives in a mobile home, and the third act takes place at a railway loading bay, though with minutes to go Marelli suddenly relents and sends Minnie and Dick Johnson off to a new life in a multicoloured hot-air balloon – unexpected and bizarre.

The star couple are on top form. Stemme plays Minnie as a tomboy with red-as-rust hair and unflattering blue dungarees. In the early, conversational parts of the role her voice sounds too thickly un-Italianate, but as soon as dramatic power is called for, its cut and thrust really tell. In the theatre Stemme sounded one size larger vocally than Kaufmann but the tenor’s burnished tone and romantic magnetism come across impressively on disc. Tomasz Konieczny does well not to be upstaged as a searingly forceful Jack Rance. Paolo Rumetz’s Ashby is gruffly sung but Norbert Ernst’s trusty Nick and Boaz Daniel’s sympathetic Sonora are well in the picture. Alessio Arduini does not appear as Jake Wallace (his song is played through a radio, symbolic of the miners’ isolation from the world). Franz Welser-Möst galvanises his forces with drive and aplomb.

The combined strengths of this performance make Sony’s DVD a clear first choice among recent releases – less drab than its Stockholm rival on EuroArts, more convincing than Lehnhoff’s glitzy, Hollywood production from Amsterdam. How rewarding it is, too, to see the detail in Stemme and Kaufmann’s portrayals at close quarters – the look on Kaufmann’s face as he lies to Minnie about Nina Micheltorena; her horror as she realises she has been dealt a losing hand in her poker match with Jack Rance. I enjoyed this Fanciulla del West enormously on DVD – more, in fact, than in the theatre.

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