CD Review: Pentatone’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’

Melody Moore Leads New Recording of Puccini’s Masterwork

By Bob Dieschburg

An aesthetic outlier in the grand tradition of Italian opera, “La Fanciulla del West” occupies a singular position both historically and within the growing catalog of Pentatone’s multichannel audio recordings. The Dutch label proposes two contrasting takes on Puccini’s tale of the Wild West; a remastered version of the DG classic (with Carol Neblett’s magisterial  Minnie) and its most recent recording from the studios of Radio Cluj in Romania. 

“La Fanciulla del West” may not be the most obvious supplement to an operatic segment which, all things considered, has dedicated little attention to the Italian repertoire. Yet the artists who have made Pentatone’s full-length encounters with the likes of Verdi (“Otello” in  2017), Puccini, and Mascagni noticeable in the past also work its magic in the present release. What is more, it does not seek competition with the cinematic sweep of its DG predecessor, but throws Melody Moore and her colleagues into a Kammeroper-like setting and thankfully presents the score without its customary editorial cuts. Thus, Minnie and the unusually charismatic Johnson, portrayed by Romanian tenor, Marius Vlad, are not the monolithic figures of the discographic tradition (think of Tebaldi and del Monaco), but a rather down-to-earth couple in search of music, hence emotional syntony. In this, they are supported by a very good set of comprimarios of which Amitai Pati stands out for his sympathetic characterization of bartender Nick. 

Conducting as understatement  

There is no doubting the novel conception of the orchestra as dramatis persona, in itself a Wagnerian theme coming to fruition in what may be the boldest opera the Lucchese maestro composed – both harmonically and in terms of melodic progression. In the past, the “Girl of the  Golden West” has indeed lent itself to cinematographic readings like Zubin Mehta’s (from the DG catalog) or Leonard Slatkin’s extraordinary tour de force with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester in 1991. The orchestra requirements, including quadruple woodwind and an expanded percussion section, are in line with such an approach. Yet, conductor Lawrence Foster retains a more moderate take on the musical diversity of the “Girl.” In supporting the voices, uncompromisingly, Foster commits to the melodic line and refrains from exploiting the “blockbuster” sonorities of the orchestral fortes as merely gratuitous effects. This certainly adds to the artistic sincerity of his vision and I wonder how his experience with 20th-century composers such as Bartok, Kodaly, and Ligeti (also recorded for  Pentatone) has shaped Foster’s reading of Puccini.  

For the most part, the very measured tone of the conductor and his orchestra works unquestionably well. The first duet between Minnie and Johnson (“Mister Johnson”) has the feel of a carefully balanced chamber opera that does not shy away from the occasional musical climax. Similarly, the relatively slow tempi (in line with most of the preceding recordings) gives each of the protagonists ample opportunity to develop their character. In the long first act of “Fanciulla,” we find Foster at his best. 

Things change with the dramatic acceleration of the plot, including the famous poker scene where he regrettably fails to construct the emotional arch that leads to Minnie’s outcry of “Tre assi e un paio!” It is in my understanding a combination of timing issues and some imprecision in the orchestral playing (the variation on Rance’s motif after “ti avro fra le mie braccia” remains  strangely unengaged) which costs the crescendo of the kettle drums its efficacy. 

Unfortunately, much of the third act remains on the heavy side as well. I found the orchestral texture unnecessarily thick, brassy in key elements of the miners’ narration. Foster is not helped by a rather suboptimal performance of the choir which does not do justice to the polyphonic riches of Puccini’s choral writing. Note the imbalance (in terms of tempi and even acoustics!) between the choir and orchestra in the first part of the miners’ narration. It gets better with the climactic tutti of the raging gold diggers (“Doodah, doodah day”) and Foster finds a way back to the more introspective tones that are the undoubted strong point of Act one. 

Lyrical and refined – Moore’s “Girl of the Golden West”  

The cast is spearheaded by Melody Moore whose technical bandwidth and stylistic competence make hers the most lyrical Minnie in recent years. Throughout her performance, she puts on display an astounding variety of nuance of which I find the sprezzatura in her first act encounter with Dick Johnson memorable not only from a vocal point of view; it also proves congenial to the moral sentiment of a heroine who is, after all, not a Brunnhilde in disguise! 

Moore makes a point emphasizing the emotional vulnerability of her character for which she finds adequate ways of expression in the breadth of her dynamic range, including some stunning diminuendos, as well as refined legato and phrasing techniques. The American soprano thus demonstrates high-caliber singing in too many instances to keep track of in the present review and the example of her beautiful portamento in “Laggiu nel Soledad” (“al babbo mio / Si amavano tanto”) should be enough to fully commend her artistry.  

That said, Moore does seem to put her voice under continuous strain in the score’s most engaging parts, such as the notorious love duet from Act II (with its additional bars after  “eternamente”) and the threefold exhortation of “Vieni fuori.” Ultimately, there is no doubt hers remains the art of a soprano lirico and those are her greatest virtues in this recording.

Marius Vlad and the Miners from the Cloudy Mountains  

In this recording, the male protagonists are Lester Lynch and Marius Vlad. The latter draws a highly empathetic portrait of Ramerrez/Johnson resting, for the most part, on vocal charisma, a pleasant timbre, and steady technique. Yet he does not have the gravitas to thoroughly exploit the pseudo-Wagnerian subtext of the opera, including its concern with moral redemption which so transcends the character of Dick Johnson.  

This does not make the present tenor’s approach less valid and it is hard to fault Vlad in any of his part’s very challenging moments. The ever-popular “Ch’ella mi creda” gives a solid measure of his considerable technical resources and (somewhat) limited palette of expression. 

The lead cast is completed by Lester Lynch whose sturdy, but not very ductile baritone remains wrapped into a vibrato-heavy monotone which, short of dynamic nuance or inflections, makes the Sheriff a rather bland figure overall. No trace of the famous baritonal snarl in his first confrontation with Johnson or indeed thereafter – and his desire for revenge in the third act (“Minnie, ora piangi tu!”) leading up to the embittered “Puoi sputarmi sul viso” remains wooden at best. 

This is not to discredit the merits of an illustrious career and the remarkably sophisticated Michele from last year’s release of “Il Tabarro” (also for Pentatone) which proves Lynch’s longstanding affinity with the late Italian repertoire. His Jack Rance, however, remains below par when compared to his own recordings and the achievements of his co-singers in “La Fanciulla del West”. 

Among the standouts in the supporting cast, Amitai Pati sings with clear diction and a very likable rendition of Nick who makes him an ideal casting choice for the witty bartender. The Samoan tenor who studied with Dennis O’Neill among others is being matched by the imposing Kevin Short whose Sonora is a more than welcome complement to his 2018 recital with arias of operatic villains. Worth a listen! 


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