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Reviews

31 Jul 2019

Munich Opera Festival: La fanciulla del West

Many Puccini cognoscenti will speak of La fanciulla del West as Puccini’s finest opera - or at least his most musically interesting. In the latter case, I think I can hear what they mean, even if I do not agree. I continue to struggle, with the former claim, although this performance at the Munich Opera Festival made the most convincing case I have yet heard for the work. Its virtues were predominantly musical, in keeping with the work’s general valuation.

Munich Opera Festival: La fanciulla del West

A review by Mark Berry

Above: John Lundgren and Anja Kampe

 

Whether in the pit or on stage, we were in hands far better, far more musical, than ‘safe’. One would have to travel far and wide to hear superior orchestral playing in Puccini, or indeed anything else, than from the Bavarian State Orchestra - and even then, one might well fail. Its lengthy experience in Wagner truly paid off, the composer’s renewed - not that it ever really vanishes - fascination with Tristan und Isolde there for all to hear: not just as superficial similarity, but as something more generative. For that and much else, the incisive, comprehending conducting of James Gaffigan deserves high praise indeed. Equally apparent here, especially in darker passages, was the related yet distinct haunting of Pelléas et Mélisande and, more broadly, Debussy’s music. It was Allemonde above all, though, that seemed to inspire the (apparent) workings of fate. Gaffigan captured to a tee the ‘American’, almost Gershwin-like character of the opening bars, proving himself - and the orchestra - distinguished guides to all of the score’s twists, turns, and transformations in between.

The principal trio of singers proved equally distinguished, unquestionably Wagnerian guides to the work’s course. Anja Kampe was, thank goodness, no goodie-two-shoes Minnie. In a more flesh-and-blood portrayal than I recall, this was a conflicted woman with, yes, much good in her, but also a beating heart that could take her to places unsafe, unwise, maybe even unwarranted. More than once, I was put in mind of her Kundry ( with Daniel Barenboim, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s magnificent production ). I seem endlessly to repeat myself when it comes to performances from Brandon Jovanovich. I am certainly not prepared, however, to vary just for the sake of variation. His performance as Dick Johnson was everything we have come to expect from this intelligent, committed artist, as dramatically powerful as it was verbally acute, as sweet-toned as it was virile. John Lundgren’s Jack Rance was just as impressive: dark, malign, but also comprehensible, no cardboard-cut-out villain. From a fine supporting cast, I should single out Tim Kuypers’s Sonora. I do not think it is just the human agency of the role that has me do so; Kuypers made one feel there was considerably more to it than that.

Andreas Dresen’s production of La fanciulla del West premiered in March this year. (The opera’s first Munich outing, intriguingly, came in 1934, the city by then well and truly the Hauptstadt der Bewegung .) It does not do anything especially interesting with the work, but nor is it unthinkingly ‘traditional’, for want of a better word. A darker setting - literally, as well as metaphorically - is provided for the action, perhaps most notably for the first act at the Polka Bar. Mathias Fischer-Dieskau’s set designs, Sabine Greuning’s costumes, and Michael Bauer’s lighting are very much part of this. There were times when I wished for something more probing, more critical, but at least Dresen steers well clear of the folkloric. For my reservations remain concerning the work itself, more precisely its dramaturgy, and I cannot help but wonder whether a director might fruitfully contribute something more here.

Some are doubtless more important than others. One can get worked up about the racism. It is well-nigh impossible for a thinking person in 2019 not at least to cringe. But I am not sure that it especially helps, unless one childishly rejects all art of the past on the grounds that it is not of the present. Perhaps, though, something more might be done to address the issue. It certainly is not here - but then, alas, Puccini tends more than any other opera composer of stature to suffer from a lack of critical stagings. The somewhat sprawling nature of the first act perhaps invites greater intervention than we found here.

It is the close, however, that seems most urgently to invite a more critical stance. If I find the happy ending unconvincing - Puccini is surely better dealing with tragedy, and that includes the hollowest of victories in Turandot - then that must, at least in part, pay tribute to the expectations the composer has set up and indeed to his playing with them. I wish Dresen had donea little more with the possibility of undermining that ending. Jack’s fumbling reach for his gun is at best half-hearted; then the curtain comes down, separating Minnie and Dick from the rest. Nor do I think the score escapes charges of sentimentality here. No matter: it is what it is, and perhaps one day I shall come to appreciate it as many others clearly do. For now, the magnificently vile sadism of Turandot will continue to work its magic. Puccini’s wish for a ‘second Bohème, only stronger, bolder, and more spacious,’ seems to me unrealised. Fanciulla is perhaps bolder, if only in aspiration; it is certainly more spacious, if not to its benefit; it is hardly stronger. There was no doubting, however, the strength of these musical performances; in many respects, that was enough for now.

Mark Berry

Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West

Minnie - Anja Kampe, Dick Johnson - Brandon Jovanovich, Jack Rance - John Lundgren, Nick - Kevin Connors, Sonora - Tim Kuypers, Trin - Manuel Günther, Sid - Alexander Milev, Bello - Justin Austin, Harry - Galeano Salas, Joe - Freddie De Tommaso, Happy - Christian Rieger, Jim Larkens - Norman Garrett, Ashby - Bálint Szabó, Wowkle - Noa Beinart, Billy Jackrabbit - Oleg Davydov, Jake Wallace - Sean Michael Plumb, Jose Castro - Oğucan Yilmaz, Pony Express Rider - Ulrich Reß; Director - Andreas Dresen, Conductor - James Gaffigan, Set Designs - Mathias Fischer-Dieskau, Costumes - Sabine Greunig, Lighting - Michael Bauer, Dramaturgy - Rainer Karlitschek/Lukas Leipfinger, Bavarian State Opera Chorus, Bavarian State Orchestra.

Nationaltheater, Munich; Friday 26th July 2019.

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