Many years ago, George Jellinek played an excerpt from a 1954 performance
of Puccini's `Fanciulla del West', sung at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino by
Eleanor Steber, Mario Del Monaco and Gian Giacomo Guelfi under conductor
Dimitri Mitropoulos. The excerpt, and recent discussion on the newsgroup
`Recorded Music Opera' whetted my appetite for the complete performance, which
has appeared on the MYTO label (2 MCD 975.169). The sound is no better than
you would expect from a performance recorded live (?or from a radio broadcast)
in the early 50's, and one of the commercial recordings is probably a better
introduction to the opera. For those who love `Fanciulla' already, however, a
thrilling experience awaits. From the opening notes the performance has
intensity and momentum, an achievement which should probably credited to
conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.
In the first half of the opera, baritone Gian Giacomo Guelfi (Sheriff
Jack Rance) sounds like a typical second string Italian baritone, rough but
serviceable, and no more. Beginning around the middle of the second act,
however, he occasionally displays some unexpected vocal velvet, though I do
miss the necessary intensity in his cries of `impicatelo!' ("hang him"), as
the heroine Minnie rides up to saver her bandit lover from hanging.
As that bandit, Dick Johnson, aka Ramirrez, Mario Del Monaco clearly owns
the show, so far as his Italian audience is concerned. He is greeted with
vociferous applause on his entrance, and both his arias, `Or son sei mesi' and
`Ch'ella mi creda' , are thunderously applauded, even though the latter solo
somehow goes awry, with broken phrases and wanderings from pitch. For the most
part, however, he delivers a performace of thrilling intensity, not only
delivering the declamatory parts in the heroic tones we expect from him, but
managing a convincing approximation of tenderness when necessary. His second
act encounter with Eleanor Steber's Minnie sets the stage on fire.
Steber herself was before my opera-going time, and all I had to judge her
on before buying this `Fanciulla' this was a studio recital of French anf
Italian arias--good, solid work, though at best intermittently exciting. But
wow! She was a different lady when she strode across the Florentine stage.
From her first entrance she is totally `on' dramatically; sometimes she just
misses going over the top, but miss it she does. The lower spinto reaches of
Minnie's music are, not, perhaps, the natural habitat of her basically lyric
instrument, but the very stress of managing them gives her performance added
intensity, and the contrast with her gleaming upper voice is exciting rather
than annoying in this verismo part.
All in all, a great performance, not to be missed by fans of the opera
itself or of any of the soloists.
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