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Dispatch from New York: 'La Fanciulla del West' turns 100 at the Metropolitan Opera

December 7, 2010 |  2:30 pm

Voight

After 100 years and nearly 100 performances at the Met, Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" still glitters, even if it remains less than box-office gold.

This week marks the centennial of "La Fanciulla's" world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, which the company is celebrating with a series of nine performances over the next few weeks. (The matinee on Jan. 8  can be seen in Southern California cinemas as part of the Met's Live in HD series.)

The first performance of the run Monday night (the 96th time in the company's history) was relatively well attended and relatively well applauded. But there were more empty seats and fewer raucous cheers on this celebratory evening (not only is this run being billed as the "100th anniversary," it's the first time the opera has been seen at the Met in 17 years) than there were for less historic revivals of the composer's "La Boheme" and "Turandot" I attended earlier this year. In fact, Wednesday night's "Boheme" (featuring a less starry cast) has more sections sold out than Friday night's "Fanciulla," which is on the actual anniversary date.

A hundred years ago, "Fanciulla" was the talk of New York thanks to its all-star creative team: Puccini himself was in the audience for the premiere, as was the director and writer of the original play, "The Girl of the Golden West," David Belasco, along with Enrico Caruso on stage and Arturo Toscanini in the pit. Since that legendary night (when tickets were being scalped for $100 a pop -- more than $2,000 in today's dollars) "Fanciulla" has never been a favorite, either abroad or here in its home country.  Giancarlo del Monaco's 1991 production -- seen at L.A. Opera eight years ago -- rivals Zeffirelli's "Boheme" in terms of scope: There's snowfall, grand sets and vistas, and yes, even a few live horses.  Yet, no applause Monday on the curtain rise of each act.

Likewise, there was no applause to stop the action after the opera's most famous aria, "Ch'ella mi Creda."  Puccini's melodies are in no shortage in "Fanciulla," and they were sensitively conveyed by conductor Nicola Luisotti and the Met orchestra. Also, they were sung robustly by the two leads, Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani. (The third lead, baritone Lucio Gallo, made little impression as the brooding sheriff, Jack Rance.)

Voigt doesn't possess a classic Italianate soprano, but she does have a fun, folksy presence as Minnie, the frontier saloon owner with a heart of gold. Brandishing a rifle with ease, the role feels like a warm-up of sorts for her much publicized turn as Annie Oakley next summer in "Annie Get Your Gun."  Tenor Giordani is in possession of a classic Italian sound -- and he was in good voice too, hitting the numerous high B-flats (something Angelenos didn't hear at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 2002, as Placido Domingo transposed down some of Dick Johnson's arias).

What was missing Monday night at the Met was a sense of rediscovery: The singers were familiar, the production old-fashioned. Nothing felt fresh, except Puccini's music, which with its mix of 20th century chromaticism and 19th century melodrama, remains a fascinating artifact from the moment when the old-world art of opera intersected with the new money and new world of America. This Met revival is a nice way to burnish the company's history, but it seems unlikely to push it into the same status as Puccini's other standards. A century after its stellar premiere, "Fanciulla" feels more like an accepted stepchild rather than a golden child, even in the opera house that gave it birth.

-- James C. Taylor in New York

Photo: Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voight in the snow of the Met's "La Fanciulla del West." Credit: Brent Ness

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