Bay Area Reporter, 02/18/2016
by Tim Pfaff

Two naughty operas appear on disc
What bothers me about Puccini is the trash. I'm not of the "shabby-little-shocker" school of Puccini scorn, but I understand it better than I do Puccini, who seemed to have something of an attention-deficit disorder aesthetically. Just when I think he's onto something, he breaks the trance with music of a jarringly different character, rhythm, and risible banality. I call for my first witness "Nessun Dorma," three minutes of money notes only the coldest serialist could disdain. In the house, the inevitable ovations allow the sound to decay before music of astonishing triviality follows, a luxury recordings don't afford.

While I'm assured that La Fanciulla de West sports the "late" Puccini style, I don't take "late" to mean more mature. So I've avoided The Girl onstage, abetted by SF Opera's having produced it only once during the three decades I was a regular. Then came the Vienna State Opera's 2013 Fanciulla, just out on DVD (Sony). Starring Jonas Kaufmann, the Tristan we're waiting for, and Nina Stemme, the Isolde of the day and on paper an improbable Minnie, it was the kind of show only the late, lamented Pierre Boulez and his disciples could have avoided.

Somehow it's easier to excuse the libretto's ethnic slurs (yellow-faced Chinamen, Injuns and their whisky) from a stage in faraway Vienna, and Marco Arturo Marelli's strikingly lit production entertains without outsmarting itself. The miners hear camp minstrel Jake Wallace's homesick song from a cassette deck on the bar at The Polka. There's just enough distance from the Golden West to save the day, and enough fidelity to the piece to catch its pulse.

I wouldn't have thought Franz Welser-Most the ideal Puccini conductor, but from the pit he leads a performance that seethes, and his cast sings its collective heart out. Kaufmann is the only tenor I've heard sing the answer to Minnie's question about his real name (Dick Johnson, he lies) and answer "Deek" without sounding like a dolt. If his voice were riper, you'd recoil, but he sings the role heroically, with abandon. Stemme's feisty Minnie melds authority with warmth, personality to burn infusing her voice at its most magnificent. Tomasz Konieczny's Sherriff Jack Rance strides right between them, eyes flashing, and his singing is, well, arresting, blazing more fearsomely than his gun, as he acts circles around the jittery lovers.

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