February 4, 2014 5:35 pm

La Fanciulla del West, Paris Opera (Bastille) – review

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging belittles Puccini’s intentions
Paris Opera's 'La Fanciulla del West'©Charles Duprat

Paris Opera's 'La Fanciulla del West'

How should an intendant introduce an opera that his house has never staged before? Borrow an existing version and bill it as a “new production”? That’s what the Paris Opera has done with Puccini’s relatively little known opera on gold diggers in California. Pity the patrons who believed what they read in the season programme and forked out up to €180 expecting to see something fresh. In fact, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging not only dates from 2009 where it was unveiled in Amsterdam but has since received a generous airing across Europe on a classical music TV channel.

The other, much more serious, issue is that Nicolas Joel, Paris Opera director, must have known that what he was buying belittled the composer’s intentions. Lehnhoff rubbishes the opera by sending it up and taking cheap cracks at US culture in an incoherent, if occasionally entertaining, panorama of film iconography. Minnie, the girl of the title, runs an underground bar for leather bikers and keeps her Bible in the safe along with her customers’ loot. Home is a kitsch pink-padded trailer flanked by two giant Bambis in a snowy Walt Disney land. The final act sees her rescuing her villainous robber sweetheart Dick Johnson from the gallows by suddenly appearing as a red-headed vamp framed by the MGM logo. Naturally it rains dollars for the happy end.

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Lehnhoff’s version appears to suggest that Fanciulla was a stepping stone to Hollywood and therefore unworthy: the creation of a money-grabbing composer out to milk the New York Met, which commissioned the opera, for all it was worth. The story, the characters and arguably Puccini’s finest score all count for nothing. Only a paid-up member of the sneering classes, who look down on Puccini, would have countenanced such a disloyal approach which turns the work into a Broadway farce to get the belly laughs.

Some honour is retrieved by Nina Stemme’s Minnie, a full-throttled interpretation that lacks trenchant Italian diction but whips up the excitement in the famous poker game. Marco Berti’s Dick has a splendid ringing tenor but little idea of phrasing. His “Ch’ella mi creda” moves from one note to the next like a learner driver changing gear. Claudio Sgura makes an unusually elegant Jack Rance, Dick’s rival for Minnie’s hand.

Carlo Rizzi tries to dwell on the music’s impressionist colours but his conducting is broadly in tune with the antics on stage: brash and low on finesse.


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