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La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart
12 Aug 2007

Bieito Does La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart

Staatsoper Stuttgart presented its new production of The Girl of the Golden West, directed by Calixto Bieito. And, well, it began with an added dialogue scene to establish the “concept.”

Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Staatsoper Stuttgart, 23 June – 25 July 2007


Okay, here is an Italian opera played to German speakers, and they chose to do this scene in English. We were apparently at stag night on a Universal studios tour of the Wild West sound stage.

A young woman dressed as a dance hall hostess (think Miss Kitty), tells them to take their seats in the bleachers, chats them up, telling them they are going to see a piece by Gee-Ah-Koh-Moh Puke-Chee-Nee, and then finally (with a Texas accent that is lost in print) shouts [I am not making this up!!]:

Would y’all like to see some Indians? (Yeeeeeaaaah)

Would y’all like to see some . . .cowboys? (Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaah)

Would y’all like to see. . . . some motherfuckin’ GUNS?!?! (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaah)

Then the music began.

It was all but impossible to tell who was who at first. The Wild West sound stage crew were enacting a mish-mosh “show” for these tourists that had precious little to do with the story or character relationships. Minnie arrived on a trapeze flown in from above, dressed as a blond circus girl in tights and spangly bodice, not unlike Mae West in “Diamond Lil.”

She sang her bible reading scene without bible, from the trapeze, making no sense. Dick Johnson arrived on a horse, and just sat around for a long time, and since there was another guy on a horse next to him, no one paid him any mind.

Rance was an Asian baritone (this becomes important later), in fact there were lots of Asians in the Stuttgart cast. Maybe they work cheap? There were so many distractions, I don't know where to begin: Uncle Sam on stilts with a cane that shot confetti repeatedly, a living Statue of Liberty, minor soloists amplified with hand held mikes like a lounge act, a stunning cowgirl “extra” who turns out to be Wowkle, the sullen Indian squaw, for God’s sake. At one point a miner had an extended solo and I could not find him on the stage. Could not. I heard him, but could not find him in the melee.

During Johnson’s extended solo during the duet, a Union soldier (!) does a handstand and then walks on his hands across the entire apron of the stage. When Minnie sings, a giant crate is delivered center stage, and the miners (or whoever they are) open it, and then one by one they mug and camp and “take” their way down a trapdoor while she and Johnson are singing their duet. Oh, and they shot cap guns a lot. And there were confederate flags hung all over the house. (It’s the California Gold Rush (1849-50)! Hellooooooo!!)

And one miner got hung by the neck but instead of staying dead, they gave him a guitar which he played. There is a “well-hung” joke there somewhere but I haven't figured it out yet.

When the waltz started, first two quite amorous men started dancing, then others, and then some sound stage director (I guess), started making amplified German announcements/directions of what they should do, over the music.

By Act II, we are in the split level dressing trailer of Miss Minnie. First, party girl Wowkle enters with a miner and a huge carnival teddy bear, with which she has sex on the sofa. This turns into a three-way when Miner Man pulls down teddy’s boxers (although not his own), and enters teddy from the rear. When Minnie comes in and throws them out, the duo become paparazzi, annoyingly photographing everything for the rest of the act. Everything. Did I mention for the rest of the act?

Minnie changes into a silver lame dress slit up to her hip, and swaps wigs to complete a redheaded Rita Hayworth look. She has apparently invited Johnson over to dinner which, she proudly shows him, is a green Jello mold. Which she puts in the microwave. Sing sing sing sing – DING! The cooking is finished. It looks none the worse for wear, so she carves it and serves it as though it were a roast. And they eat it with knives and forks like good Europeans.

Then, obviously she has another culinary surprise in store for him, and she brings out an identical red Jello mold which they giggle over like middle schoolers, poking it and pulling bits loose with their fingers. Of course, then all hell breaks loose, and some 50’s Vegas thugs (including Rance) arrive brandishing pistols. Costumes get a little weirder here with lots of “Gangsta Wrap.”

One of Rance’s side kicks sits down and starts enjoying leftover Jello, which annoys the hell out of the Sheriff. So he picks up handfuls of it and stuffs it in the guy’s mouth and holds it shut until he swallows. (I am not making this up.) This may be the very first time in operatic history that Jello was a major prop.

The famous poker scene consists of Minne and Rance staring each other down while Minne throws cards at him and in the air, until she throws the remainder at him as she exclaims “Three aces and a pair.” And then they both break character and laugh laugh laugh laugh laugh, like they had some “in” joke. Then Minnie sobs uncontrollably until we transition to some nether region for Act III.

All the cast save the leads are now wearing colorful Mexican tourist sombreros, and are shrouded in a mist. Uncle Sam on stilts is back as some miner or another on stilts, in a tuxedo. He must be a symbol. Of. . .?????

Johnson is finally captured house right with three red ropes, and dragged on stage. As he sings his gallows aria (nowhere near one), the rest of the cast shoot and kill each other rather noisily in pantomimed slo-mo and drop dead to the floor. The tenor could have had a sparkler in his teeth and no one would have noticed. Stilts Man sprinkles them all with glitter. Fairy Dust? Who knows?

Finally, Rance (here’s the Asian motif) starts to execute Johnson with a Samurai sword, but lo, Minnie appears with her own Samurai sword, dressed like she had just come from a callback audition for the “The Fantastic Four.” They spar and she kills him, with Rance lingering a long time with the damn sword stuck under his armpit. The dead all sing (to audience laughs), then get up.

They all exit, leaving Minnie and Johnson splitting and singing how they are together.

Lights out. Audience boos.

What a mess. I think there actually may be a workable concept in all this, but it is so busy, so unfocused, and so self-indulgent that it does not come close to being representative of this piece. Fanciulla is still a caviar piece, and needs to be attractively produced to win favor with an audience. Being all over the map did not win this work any new fans.

And sadly, the leads were not up to par. The Russian soprano should stop and fix her problems. The baritone was okay, and the Asian tenor was the best of the lot, but lisped much of his Italian like he was Castilian. I have a hard time believing that any one of them would have gotten to the Met Council finals. And the conducting was dry and correct, when it needed to have Puccini Passion.

Anyhow, there is my take on Bieito’s “Fanciulla.” I wouId not be in a hurry to see a production of his again. Or to go to Stuttgart Opera again anytime soon.

James Sohre

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