There's Something About Minnie

It is hard to fathom today, but there was a time when Puccini operas were new. Two of them had their world premieres at the Metropolitan Opera — “Il Trittico” and 100 years ago (on December 10, 1910), “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”).

Starring Caruso in the tenor lead with Toscanini in the pit, the original “spaghetti western” rode high in the saddle before Sergio Leone, Terence Hill, or Clint Eastwood were even born. Puccini crafted one of his most sophisticated scores, in which thematic complexity and orchestral subtleties trump overt melodic and emotional gestures.

In “La Fanciulla” at 100, more than a girl, less than golden

For “La Fanciulla”’s centenary year, the Metropolitan wisely passed on putting together a new production, since Giancarlo Del Monaco’s 1991 production played less than 20 performances in two seasons and has held up well. Luxuriantly detailed and cinematically realistic, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne would feel right at home in these settings. Probably more at home than the trio headlining this historic revival, a cast that seemed the best available on paper five years ago but proved problematic in the here and now.

Best of the bunch is Marcello Giordani stepping into Caruso’s Stetson boots as the outlaw Dick Johnson (behave yourself ladies!). The Sicilian tenor has the right vocal color and weight, though the tone can turn husky just below the upper register break. His only dynamic is loud but the top notes are ringing and the phrasing is idiomatic. Giordani is a giving, generous artist — so passing flaws can be forgiven.

The dearth of top rank Italian dramatic baritones is a more pressing problem than it was 100 years ago. Lucio Gallo, an experienced Jack Rance, has native diction and is a good actor, but the voice is hollow and snarly with shouted tops.

The biggest problem is the “Girl” herself — erstwhile Strauss and Wagner soprano Deborah Voigt. Minnie is a tall order vocally and dramatically, requiring equal parts winsome charm and cowgirl toughness. The vocal writing is all over the place — incisive declamation, out of nowhere high climaxes, and low chesty utterances all projected over a heavy orchestration.

Voigt has never looked prettier or thinner and was acting with sincerity. Working diligently at the Italian text, her sunny smile and cool integrity are a good fit for Minnie, but the voice wasn’t up to the job. Voigt’s tone is now lean, hollow, and metallic in the middle, making her sound like a tough, aging lyric soprano. The upper register still can glow with a golden sheen (the climactic C in “Laggiu nel Soledad” was a winner) but tires easily.

Minnie has a marathon sing in Act II, and here Voigt’s problems came to the fore — she could not sustain vocal energy or consistent tone and pitch. The end of the poker fell flat vocally and dramatically; the “tre assi e un paio” (three aces and a pair) exclamation was matter of fact rather than triumphant. Some of this can be attributed to Del Monaco’s stage direction — Voigt was facing upstage for too much of the card game, and her gun-toting Act I entrance found her lost in the crowd.

Dwayne Croft as Sonora led a sterling group of miners (including such fine artists as Richard Bernstein, Oren Gradus, and Keith Miller) under the direction of Del Monaco, who recreated his original production. Nicola Luisotti in the pit took overly leisurely tempos for the action scenes but relished the delicate orchestral harmonies that have echoes of Debussy and Strauss. But without a blazing diva center stage, the whole thing was like watching “Gone with the Wind” with Joanne Dru or Evelyn Ankers standing in for Vivien Leigh.

DVD and Blu-ray formats have replaced the compact disc as the dominant operatic recording medium, and HD transmissions are becoming more and more popular. (“Fanciulla” hits the screen in high def on January 8.) It is now more important how a singer looks on camera than how they sound. The stage director’s primacy in operatic production — at the expense of even the conductor — has contributed to this as well.

Voigt resorted to gastric bypass surgery after the notorious “little black dress” incident because a costume was more important than the vocal abilities of the star. Andrea Gruber and Measha Brueggergosman have reportedly also gone the bariatric surgery route, losing significant vocal core and quality along with the avoirdupois. Gruber is now a missing person in the operatic world. I hope Voigt does not join her in limbo after taking on all three Brunnhildes. In operatic poker, the voice is the ace in the hand.