Every year The American Center for Puccini Studies (Puccini America) has a Vigil to celebrate the Maestro’s birthday. This was the 7th such Vigil. It commemorated not only Puccini’s 152nd Birthday, but the 100th Anniversary of the Premiere of La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). This most unusual opera, with a libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, is based on a play by David Belasco (Madama Butterfly is also based on a play by Belasco). The opera premiered in 1910 not at La Scala di Milano, but at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and featured in the principal roles the stellar cast of Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini on the podium.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in the audience on that night?
La fanciulla del West is a very “American” sounding opera in its tonality. It actually reminds me of George Gershwin in the opening chords. There is also a good deal of influence from Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss, yet it is in no way imitative. La fanciulla is more through-composed than Puccini’s other operas and has fewer arias. It is an opera propelled by the drama, creating “high-voltage” tension overlaid by melodic splendor. The extremely high tessitura of the soprano and tenor solo vocal lines, coupled with the heavy orchestration, make it even more difficult to sing than Puccini’s Turandot. It was a popular vehicle for Renata Tebaldi, Dorothy Kirsten, Eleanor Steber, Mario Del Monaco, and Placido Domingo. The current MET production features Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani. The ACPS production is a concert version.
Kay Krekow can only be described as vocally magnificent and dramatically thrilling as Minnie.
Her voice had heft and spin right up to High C# on Saturday evening. As the cowgirl from Soledad she looked like Annie Oakley with her pigtails, western skirt, and boots. The opera is set in the 1800’s, during the days of the California gold rush. Minnie’s first aria “Laggiu nel Soledad” (Down Yonder in Soledad), relates her early days to a group of “woolly miners, who are all in love with her, as Minnie is apparently the only woman in the mining camp except for the Indian Wowkle, Billy Jackrabbit’s squaw. It is a peculiar aria in that it is very talkative at first (parlando) in much the same way as is Turandot’s first aria “In Questa Reggia” (In this Palace). And like Turandot’s aria it waxes melodic at the very end and suddenly leaps all the way to High C. This note always seemed to catch Renata Tebaldi by surprise. It certainly caught Deborah Voigt off guard on the MET’s opening night radio broadcast. Ms. Krekow, however, was waiting in ambush and “dry gulched” that High C dead center. Annie Oakley could not have made a more impressive shot. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, while the audience roared with approving applause.
The late Puccini biographer and musicologist Professor William Ashbrook greatly admired Kay Krakow’s interpretations of the Puccini heroines. He flatly stated that she was born to sing the role of Minnie, and that this would be her greatest role. She has proven him right!
Harry Dunstan was also in spectacular voice for this performance. This was the finest singing I have heard from this tenor. It is certainly his best role. The ACPS always presents original editions of the Puccini operas, which include a great deal of music often excised in modern productions. This performance featured the complete version of the Love Duet. In later years Puccini was to say of this extended version of the duet, that if the singers could not manage the length and high tessitura, and had to resort to a truncated version (which has always been the standard practice), they had no business singing the opera. Mr. Dunstan and Ms. Krekow sang the entire duet with stamina and aplomb, reverberating the walls of the Black Rock Center with ear splitting High C’s. This is the kind of singing people go to hear at the opera. The unfamiliar music was a thrill to experience, and, as Artistic Director, Mr. Dunstan must be applauded for putting this music back into the score.
As the villain Jack Rance, who is also obsessively enamored of Minnie, and plays for her affections and the life of Dick Johnson in a hand of poker (which he loses by Minnie’s pulling an Ace from her boot), baritone Daniel Sherwood gave a musically solid and dramatically winning performance. He is a young singer who displays evidence of a fine talent. At present, however, he does not have the right voice for this role. He lacks the dark and stoutly rounded resonance of an Italian baritone. At most times he sounded like a tenor singing in a low register. As he matures and continues to study, he will certainly grow into this type of role. The ACPS also runs the Arcadian Vocal Studio, in which they train young artists in the vocal techniques and styles of singing opera. This is done much in the same way as the Domingo/Cafritz program for young singers is run by the Washington National Opera. As the ACPS is not “per se” a professional operatic stage company, but rather a center of learning and development, they can only be lauded for giving young artists like Daniel Sherwood the opportunity and experience of appearing on stage with seasoned professionals.
One of the major difficulties in mounting The Girl of the Golden West is that is has fourteen comprimario roles. Even for the MET, Covent Garden, or La Scala, this is an enormous amount of small roles to cast and train. Here is where The ACPS demonstrated the wonderful schooling of their artists, and the strength of the company members. There was not one weak performer in any of the fourteen roles. In fact, some of the voices were major talents who will obviously go on to major careers. Chief among these were baritones Mattia D’Affus, Peter Tomazewicz, and Daryl Ott. Mr. Ott was simply splendid. Next to tenor Harry Dunstan, Daryl Ott had the finest male voice in the production. Due to last minute cancelations, Mr. Ott had to assume four roles at a moment’s notice. He did so without missing a note! Tenor Joey Horowitz also gave a strong performance in role of Joe. Melissa Kornacki was most entertaining as the Indian squaw Wowkle. Her body language was a lesson in operatic acting. The chorus of miners was also strong vocally and added weight and fullness to the ensembles.
Pianist Michael Baitzer was an orchestra unto himself. I heard melodies and motifs that had escaped me in listening to recordings and orchestral performances of this opera. He has an unusually fine ear and is behind the singers on every phrase. This was no small feat, particularly considering the absence of a conductor. Opera scores are famously difficult to play as they are merely the orchestra parts reduced to two hands, and usually have more notes than ten fingers can play at one time. Mr. Baitzer knows exactly what to leave out and what to add. This requires real artistry. Bravo Maestro Baitzer!
To create a truly festive mood with the feeling of a real birthday party at this “Puccini Vigil”, there was plenty of wine, hors d’ouvres, hot dogs, and chili served up by theHard Times Café and their most congenial staff. It was wonderful to see a local restaurant support the opera. I devoured at least two chili dogs and more than a couple glasses of Zinfandel. I was ready to go onstage myself by Act III. During the intermissions Tenor/Pianist Carlos Ibay entertained by performing arias, Neapolitan songs, and Chopin salon pieces at the piano. Considering the fact that he is blind and plays everything by ear, he was as impressive as what was going on in the opera. Andrea Bocelli move over! There are always many Italians like myself at these Puccini parties, and we gathered around the piano, wine glass in hand, and joined in singing Neapolitan airs and Tosti songs like “Funiculi Funicula” and “O Surdato Innamurato”.
A good time was had by all. Happy Birthday Puccini!