Superb, if mixed, Fanciulla at OONY
Last night's La Fanciulla del West at Carnegie Hall was the classic case of the whole being much better than the sum of its parts. It was a thrilling performance of Puccini's score and a huge, fully deserved, personal triumph for Aprile Millo.
Of the three roles Ms. Millo has done for OONY recently, this was surely the most successful, better even than her storied Adriana Lecouvreur and easily obliterating memories of her pale La Gioconda. For one thing, the role sits perfectly for her voice,allowing its beauty and sensuousness to emerge almost effortlessly. The high notes are still possible for her, even if the tone now spreads just noticeably,and they are both substantial and secure. Her major current technical limitation -- not being able to do anything in the top register piano let alone pianissimo, was no handicap in this score. She dominated the proceedings vocally and created a believable character, with no trace of the pretentious grande dame mannerisms that had trivialized her Gioconda. Her Minnie was down to earth, courageous, and emotionally vulnerable -- and Ms. Millo seemed to enjoy portraying her immensely. Audience reaction was tumultuous and it was all richly deserved, not inflated or fake enthusiasm for a cult figure. Last night Aprile Millo was a major Italian Soprano in great shape and in full communication with her audience.
I don't mean to suggest that it was a case of Aprile and the seven dwarfs, but nothing else except the spirited, tonally gleaming work of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus and William Ferguson's strongly sung and acted Nick the Bartender came anywhere near her level. The orchestra played very well, with all sorts of inner detail cleanly articulated, but conductor Eve Queler let it roar out at volume levels that covered singers mercilessly. Ms. Queler has a penchant for finding promising, interesting young singers and giving them wonderful exposure in these concert performances. Last night, however, the entire first scene until Minnie's entrance (except for the brief Jake Wallace scene) that features a dozen such singers, was experienced as pantomime. Time after time during the evening, the orchestra was allowed -- encouraged? -- to obliterate anything in its path. As a performance of the Fanciulla symphony it wasn't bad, but Puccini did write this as an OPERA and far too many moments, even for the three principal singers, were inaudible.
There was another disappointment. Tenor Carl Tanner, who has been impressive elsewhere, was miscast here. Like Minnie, Dick Johnson has some spectacular ascents into the upper register and Mr. Tanner didn't fail. But Johnson -- also like Minnie -- really lives in his middle voice and needs strength at the bottom as well. Mr. Tanner's voice doesn't blossom down there and its focus is warm and soft rather than clear and brilliant. Given the orchestral volume, he was mostly either inaudible or not really present vocally from his first entrance until half way through the final duet of act one. Act two was much the same. In act three, he seemed to find enough volume for basic audibility but the heart of the role does not lie well for him, particularly under the orchestral circumstances he faced last night.
Marco Chingari, a handsome man with a fine-grained baritone of nice, warm timbre, made a sympathetic if moderately-scaled Sheriff Rance. Stephen Gaertner's Sonora emerged an attractive presence, Daniel Mobbs sang Jake Wallace beautifully, Mary Ann Stewart actually made something of Wowkle, and Mr. Ferguson's Nick showed promise of a fine lyric tenor leading man in the making. Evaluation of the rest of the large cast must await a performance in which they can actually be heard with some consistency.
Ira Siff faced some serious challenges in directing a semi-staged Fanciulla. There's a massive amount of realistic action and he was also facing a leading lady who has gained a considerable amount of weight in the past year and who elected to sit during most of act two. This last created serious difficulties for Mr. Tanner when attempting to play any scenes opposite her and Mr. Siff may simply have given up. Act two featured a lot of wandering around the stage until the climactic poker game for Johnson's life. Here, where Ms. Millo could justifiably have sat across a table from Rance, Mr. Siff had the singers standing on either side of the podium singing straight out at the audience with not a card in sight. Fortunately, Ms. Millo made the moment electric visually and vocally all by herself.
But I cannot stress enough that SHE was enough. The performance last night will be remembered as a huge success, a success that rests firmly on her fully capable shoulders.
Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts
Massachusetts Institute of Technology