A Second Look Review: Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera, Champions of “Fanciulla del West” – June 27, 2010

Since my review of the first performance of the new San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” was effusive in its praise of the singing, the conducting and the physical sets (see Voigt, Licitra Lead Sizzling San Francisco Centennial Celebration for “Girl of the Golden West” – June 9, 2010), one might imagine my review of the sixth performance would not top the one for the first.

But I found the sixth performance at a level beyond my very high expectations. Significantly, and in validation of my personal observation, a member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra came over to me during an intermission and asked whether the current performance sounded as wonderful to me as it was sounding to the orchestra, and how amazed he was in the glorious vocal sounds that Deborah Voigt (Minnie), Salvatore Licitra (Dick Johnson), Roberto Frontali (Jack Rance) and the ragazzi (played both by artists in the principal comprimario roles and by the chorus) were producing that day.

I confirmed that my impression of the performance from an audience point of view coincided with the buzz in the orchestra.

There was a ready explanation based on the circumstances of the opera’s mounting in San Francisco. Every member of the cast was singing his or her role for the first time in this run of performances, and Luisotti was conducting for only the second run. As the artists onstage all possessed great voices and savvy acting skills, and  had already performed in a final dress rehearsal and five live performances, it was not surprising that the sixth performance went very well indeed. There was now sufficient collective experience with Puccini’s complex composition that the conductor, the principal singers, the chorus, and the orchestra will have worked through how to meld  their individual performances into a triumphant whole.

Even so, the opera’s successful run had to have delighted the San Francisco Opera’s administration.  There had been risks. At a time when every dime is precious to the opera company, S. F. Opera invested in a new production in collaboration with the opera companies of Palermo, Sicily and Liege, Belgium. Two superstars, Voigt and Licitra, who might easily have sold out more familiar works, were enlisted. A Wagnerian sized orchestra was required for the “Fanciulla” wall of sound. And Luisotti’s personal prestige was put on the line for the work.

[Below: San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Even though a purist might have winced at the clever marketing of the piece (the City of San Francisco attached banners proclaiming the opera to be “the original spaghetti Western” to the lampposts of the San Francisco Civic Center), the selling of the opera brought in the crowds, likely including some seeing opera for the first time. And the reaction to this sixth performance had to have been ingratiating to General Manager David Gockley and Luisotti, with a sold out house engaged in a standing ovation that as far as this observer could determine, was joined by virtually every member of the audience.

One of the nihilist critics whose curmudgeonly opinions on a different opera were cited in another post here, snorted at the work and seemed to be recommending euthanasia for the Girl after her 100th birthday was celebrated. As might be expected, one reviewer or another had some issue, for example, with whether San Francisco Opera should be co-producing opera with “regional Italian companies”.  But the opera’s detractors were sparser than some would have expected, and most of the critics seemed won over by the performances. The Girl proved to have glamour.

A Marvelous Licitra and some Wishful Thoughts

I had been impressed with Licitra’s Luigi in Los Angeles (see French Connection: Friedkin’s Cinematic “Tabarro” – L A Opera September 6, 2008) and his Ernani in Chicago (see Licitra, Radvanovsky Gleam in Lyric Opera’s Glorious New “Ernani”: Chicago, November 5, 2009).

Yet, impressive as I found him on the three previous occasions, it was this Sunday performance in which his voice was at its most spectacular. This is the opera house in which the young Luciano Pavarotti made his role debuts in seven operas – Riccardo in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, Fernando in Donizetti’s “La Favorita”, Rodolfo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”, Manrico in Verdi’s “Traviata”, Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot”, Enzo in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” and Rhadames in Verdi’s “Aida”. Every one of these roles I heard him sing, sometimes multiple times, in this great house.

Thus, it seemed to me an occasion of more significance to me than to most others that the young Licitra, who is still exploring important new roles, sang his first Dick Johnson at the War Memorial under Luisotti’s baton.  In the late 1960s and 1970s when Pavarotti’s career was linked so directly with San Francisco and its opera’s general director Kurt Herbert Adler, there was not the imperative to sign stars to contracts for roles quite so many years in the future (although last minute changes in repertory happen even today).

Perhaps the  idea of a long term bond resembling that of Adler’s with Pavarotti being developed between Licitra, Luisotti and the War Memorial Opera House is an impossible dream, but now that one has heard that tenor with that conductor and that orchestra at the War Memorial, one would not wish the partnership to stop there. (Nothing in this wishful thought is meant to suggest that future engagements in San Francisco should result in fewer Licitra performances at the other opera companies whose work I also cover.)

[Below: Dick Johnson (Salvatore Licitra), who is known as the bandit Ramerrez, arrives at the Polka saloon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Frontali and the Boys

Before I move on to more on to more about Minnie, the success of the production was greatly enhanced by the Rance and  the ragazzi. Frontali’s attractive light baritone worked well here.

In six months (just after the Metropolitan Opera observes the actual centennial date with Luisotti and Voigt performing), Licitra and Frontali will participate in the first Italian mounting of this tri-country production.

Puccini’s stage directions (faithfully executed in Mariani’s production) calls for a sign above the long bar at the Polka saloon to proclaim the surroundings to be “home for the boys”.  The saloon’s sets, which are said to be inspired by the  1950s Joan Crawford western “Johnny Guitar”, appear, like the movie’s setting, to be immediately adjacent to the mining activities.

That home for the ragazzi is usually full of the extraordinary number of defined personalities among the multitude of comprimario roles. Several of the these roles were sung by artists who have appeared in San Francisco in principal roles previously, such as Kevin Langan as Ashby the Wells Fargo agent, Brian Leerhuber as the homesick Cornish miner, Larkens, and David Lomeli as Harry. Debuting artist Trevor Scheunemann impressed as  the nostalgic balladeer Jake Wallace.

Also debuting, and an instant favorite of the San Francisco Opera audience, was Timothy Mix as Sonora. Steven Cole was Nick the Bartender. Rounding out the boys were Brian Jagde as Joe, Matthew O’Neill as Trin, Kenneth Overton as the card cheat Sid, Igor Viera as Happy, and Austin Kness as Handsome (Bello). Jeremy Milner as the American Indian Billy Jackrabbit and Maya Lahyani as his mate were sufficiently impressive to remind one that an artist in a small role at San Francisco Opera often turns out to be a major star a few years later.

[Below: Sherriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontali) shares with Minnie the responsibility for keeping the town’s mining town’s ragazzi  in line, whose social center is the Polka saloon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A Wagnerian Soprano in the Golden West

The role of Minnie requires a voice capable of soaring above a supersized orchestra. Voigt, who sings such soaring parts as Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere”, has the power one needs for the role.

Puccini, like Mascagni and other verismo composers, was a passionate fan of Wagnerian opera and particularly Wagner’s use of the orchestra as a integral component of the dramatic action. Puccini incorporated many Wagnerian ideas – the structure of leitmotivs and the “wall of sound” created by a supersized orchestra.

None of his operas exceed “Fanciulla” in its Wagnerian trappings, but  the role of Minnie creates a problem for the opera’s adoption into the inner core of the standard Italian repertory. Unlike most other Puccini soprano roles, excepting the title role of “Turandot”, it seems to require a voice that is more powerful in its upper ranges than even the spinto sopranos who sing the title roles of, say, “Manon Lescaut”, “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly”.

The choice of Deborah Voigt as Minnie has its own significance in several ways.  If one is a novice to the opera, and hears Voigt’s Minnie midway into the first act, engaged in an expositional parlante conversation pitched in her middle voice, one may wonder what all the fuss and excitement is about.  But in a while, in her first love duets with Dick Johnson she will be power singing high in her range and her voice will remain in the stratosphere for much of the rest of the opera.  Voigt turns out to be an wonderful Minnie, a role that she should be associated with for the years to come.

[Below: Minnie (Deborah Voigt) puts on her feminine clothes in expectation of the arrival of Dick Johnson at her cabin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Girl of Gold in San Francisco’s House of Puccini: a backstory?

Five years ago, both conductor Nicola Luisotti’s and baritone Peter Strummer’s websites announced that each would appear in a 2005 production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” at San Francisco Opera. For whatever reason, the opera was not mounted that year, the last year of the general directorship of Pamela Rosenberg. Instead, Luisotti was enthusiastically praised for his conducting of a otherwise poorly received new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”, in which Strummer, a brilliant character actor, was assigned the relatively unimportant role of the Mayor of Hornochuelos, that one imagines normally would be an assignment for an Adler Fellow, one of the Young Artists in residence.

A San Francisco Opera administrator confirmed to me subsequently that indeed “Fanciulla” was planned for the 2005-06 season, then abandoned, although he maintained that its replacement in the repertory was Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in the summer portion of the season, rather than the Fall “Forza”. Since both “Forza” and “Butterfly” had Ron Daniels as stage director (and Strummer showed up in Summer 2006 as well, although in another opera) it does seem to me quite plausible that both the new production of “Forza” and the revival of Daniels’ “Butterfly” were afterthoughts after a “Fanciulla” production was abandoned or aborted.

Whether something happened to derail a 2005 “Fanciulla” or not, as an advocate for this opera to take its place in the standard repertory, I believe the cause was advanced by the new production taking place at San Francisco Opera in 2010, rather than 2005. Five years ago, the opera company was in a bit of a shambles, the artistic equivalent of the Wild West. There were company strengths, particularly the artistic leadership of musical director and principal conductor Donald Runnicles, but it seemed a chaotic time for those who recalled the high standards (and audience expectations) of the era of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler.

During the three and a half years since David Gockley has been the company’s  general director, performance and production standards have been on a steep-sloped rise, remarkable given the severe economic downturn. The administrative team of Gockley and Luisotti (who replaced Runnicles as music director), had cautioned that one must wait until the 2009-2010 season, the first one fully planned by them, to take their measure.

I have already suggested that the opera company under Gockley be regarded as the “House of Puccini” because of the stunning series of productions – “Manon Lescaut” (2006), “La Rondine” (2007) “Madama Butterfly” (2008), “La Boheme” (2008), “Tosca” (2009) and an extraordinarily well cast “Trittico” (2009) in New York City Opera’s sets, the only physical production so far to show budgetary compromises.

But by calendar year 2008 the operas presented established a daunting series of consecutive home runs (or in the case of “Trittico” a triple) even before Luisotti actually assumed the musical directorship in mid-2009.

[Below: the ragazzi have captured Dick Johnson (Salvatore Licitra, center, kneeling) as Sheriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontali, center, standing above Licitra) decides his fate; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This website first reported that a “Fanciulla” centennial observance would take place in 2010 three years ago, when Gockley responded to a direct question from me at a “post-performance” talk with the audience. (See Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007.) I firmly believe that waiting for the opera’s 100th birthday  year, rather than its 95th, has helped the opera’s cause.