Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

ONP Bastille, Friday February 7 2014

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Sets: Raimund Bauer. Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Lighting: Duane Schuler. Video: Jonas Gerberding. Minnie: Nina Stemme. Jack Rance: Claudio Sgura. Dick Johnson: Rafael Rojas. Nick: Roman Sadnik. Ashby: Andrea Mastroni. Sonora: André Heyboer. Trin: Emanuele Giannino. Sid: Roberto Accurso. Bello: Igor Gnidii. Harry: Eric Huchet. Joe: Rodolphe Briand. Happy: Enrico Marabelli. Larkens: Wenwei Zhang. Billy Jackrabbit: Ugo Rabec. Wowkle: Anna Pennisi. Jake Wallace: Alexandre Duhamel. José Castro: Matteo Peirone. Un Postiglione: Olivier Berg. Un baritono: Daejin Bang. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

La Fanciulla, with its weak plot, weird heroine and quaint libretto, which assumes Americans all shout "Hello" when they enter a bar, must be a difficult work to stage credibly (supposing, that is, we may expect opera, exotic and irrational as it is, to be credible). Nikolaus Lehnhoff makes no attempt, preferring to send it up, on a grand and presumably costly scale.

Puccini
After a brief, black-and-white film of agitated traders, he sets act one in a high-tech bunker, tunnel or perhaps sewer under New York (Wall Street?), with ribbed walls, round entrances and a gaping, rough-edged, rectangular hole through which we see projections of skyscrapers, a church steeple or, when feeling nostalgic, the countryside. If the Polka is a bikers' bar or a gay one is a moot point. At any rate everyone is in black leather from head to (long-pointed) toe and many are unshaven, bald or long-haired, and tattooed, in sunglasses, stetsons, chaps and/or floor-length leather greatcoats, brandishing pistols. They play cards or the slot machines, laugh or brawl with oddly effective, jerky movements. Whether bikers or leather queens, it seems  unlikely they'd pine for their mothers and cottages - not the country kind, by a stream, at any rate - sing waltzes or gather round Minnie to hear readings from the bible she keeps in the safe. Only the minstrel is in white - leather of course, with long fringes and a guitar, against the country backdrop. Minnie is in red - leather of course - against a reddened sky.

The costumes throughout are unmistakeably not French: ugly and ill-fitting.

In act two, we find Minnie living in a large, streamlined Barbie caravan in the mountains, flanked, in a blanket of snow, by giant plastic Bambis whose eyes glow red at times of passion. A flagpole flies the stars and stripes in the garden. The caravan is open, revealing an all-pink, quilted vinyl (leather perhaps) interior with a bed on the left and a kitchen, with a pink-haloed madonna, on the right. The posse looking for Ramerrez never thinks of looking behind the little (pink) screen beside the bed. To hide Dick, once wounded, in the "loft", Minnie grabs a long, hooked pole, opens a (pink, quilted) trapdoor in her ceiling and yanks down a pantographic aluminium ladder, sending him up on the roof (in the snow, mind you) before struggling (moment of suspense for the audience) to push back the recalcitrant ladder and close the hatch with her pole.

Recent MET production
Act three opens on a magnificently constructed heap of wrecked American cars, some with working lights, from which the bikers, once called upon, eventually emerge. In the background, a mountain landscape and sweeping clouds. A block and tackle swing to the left, convenient for lynching. But of course, there is no lynching. The heaped cars part, revealing a staircase in lights; the MGM logo, lion and all, rises to the sky; and Minnie appears at the top of the stairs in a dazzlingly ugly Hollywood ballgown (think Jessica Rabbit). As the singing soars, the lion roars; and as the work ends, Minnie and Dick - by now in black tie - ascend the stairs towards the White House in a shower of dollar bills.

Some of the audience were not happy about this. There may have been a "message" in there about American clichés, but by now messages about American clichés are surely clichéd.

Marco Berti was off sick, so yesterday evening we had Rafael Rojas singing from the side of the stage while a lanky production assistant played a singularly ungainly, unattractive Dick, more homeless or hobo than hero. Rojas was excellent, but the house was too big so it's unlikely people up in the Bastille's stratospheric regions heard much of him. It would be interesting to hear him again in better circumstances. As the production wasn't designed to have a tenor on the apron, his last note was spoiled when he was beaned by a descending gauze.

Nina Stemme is a great singer, with all the resources needed for Minnie, though not a glamorous one. After a rather stiff, hard start, she warmed into the part and sang it magnificently. Claudio Sgura, tall and charismatic, was a better match, as Jack Rance, than the less amply-voiced Johnson.

The rest of the cast and chorus were all on fine form, as was the orchestra, at its most sumptuous in the sumptuous score under Rizzi. Musically, therefore, this was a good evening. Visually it was, despite the impressive scale and skill of the staging, more comical than convincing: an expensive joke.

Maestro Wenarto sings La Fanciulla.

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