RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
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In the late 1950s, at a time when both EMI and Decca would each summer send recording teams to Italy on opera projects, it is said that one of the Decca engineers ran into an EMI opposite number and asked what he was doing. ‘Oh, Fanciulla del West’ came the reply. ‘That’s funny, so are we.’ Whether or not that story is apocryphal, two rival sets of this opera did appear from the rival camps within an embarrassingly short span, and both of them had much to offer. The Decca set with Tebaldi and del Monaco has remained in the catalogue virtually ever since. It was one of the first complete sets which really brought home the atmospheric advantages of stereo, and still sounds very well indeed. In some ways the EMI set with Birgit Nilsson was livelier, but in the face of such satisfying, well-paced competition, it disappeared for many years, until it came back as a mid-price reissue at the time of the Covent Garden production last year.
It was that production which prompted this magnificent and timely new version, the one which in almost every way must now be preferred even to those fine earlier sets. Those who, like me, have over the years lived with the Decca set and Capuana’s broad straight reading, may initially find Mehta’s tempi at the start questionably too urgent. It is not just in the cakewalk passages that Mehta’s speeds are brisk, but relatively so, too, in the first ‘Grand Tune’ of Fanciulla, the camp minstrel’s nostalgic song, ‘Che faranno i viecchi miei’, which here runs no risk whatever of slowing down into sentimentality. In a direct comparison I initially preferred the slower Capuana speed, but quickly I came to feel that Mehta’s was the better in context. After that, through the opera I would not question more than the occasional tiny detail of a reading which has so plainly been matured, in a series of opera-house performances. In every way this is just as rich and involving an example of Mehta’s Puccini conducting as his Decca set of Turandot, for just as clearly he knows how to thrust home a Puccinian climax, not least in the happy ending, where too much sentiment would spill over horribly, but where a gulp must firmly be induced at the moment when the miners release the hero and he mutters to them a heartfelt ‘Grazie ragazzi’.
In this opera more obviously than in the rest of the Puccini oeuvre, the wrong associations are liable to weigh too heavily and cloud our appreciation of what is at every level a masterly score, full of subtle orchestral effects. Nowadays the early complaints that it was totally unbelievable having tough goldminers with names like Sid and Harry howling their eyes out in an Italianate way have rather given way to suspicions that Puccini took on more than even he could manage in trying to heighten a poor little love story about a goldrush, a black-hearted sheriff, a girl with a heart of gold who had never been kissed and a bandit hero who promptly decides to reform the moment he sets eyes on her. In all this I find I have different responses in hearing the opera on record from those I feel in the opera house. Where on record I have always found Act 2 difficult to swallow with its climactic poker game, but have consistently warmed to the red-blooded emotions of Acts 1 and 3, it was rather the other way round for me at Covent Garden. Enough to report that though Act 2 is here superbly done, it is my record response that the new set inspires (like the earlier versions) and that Acts 1 and 3 are the ones which are more winningly enjoyable, culminating in that glorious riding off into the sunset, where Puccini ingeniously alternates phrases from the two great melodies – the lovers disappearing to their love theme while the miners wistfully stay behind to ‘Che faranno i viecchi miei’.
Puccini’s cunning throughout in controlling emotion is consistently demonstrated in this performance, not just by Mehta and the Covent Garden orchestra in superb form after their opera-house run but by the whole cast, who with one exception also took part in the production. The exception is an obvious one, no doubt designed to sell the set – Sherrill Milnes as Sheriff Rance.
His great quality in the role of villain here is that he makes Rance into more than a small-town Scarpia. There is a vein of genuine nobility in the portrait from gramophone.co.uk
Click on a CD cover to buy/stream from the moment when in Act 1 Rance bares his heart to Minnie in the solo ‘Minnie dalla mia casa’ and she responds just as touchingly and simply in ‘Laggiu nel Soledad’. He may be a villain but we can understand him and his motives, which: are not necessarily evil ones. As for Plácido Domingo as the hero, it would be unfair to expect any great revelation from him in the role of Dick Johnson. As at Covent Garden he sings gloriously and heroically enough to sweep any girl off her feet, and my one disappointment is that in the great Act 3 showpiece aria, ‘Ch’ella mi creda’, one of the most instantly memorable melodies that even Puccini conceived, he does not attempt a pianissimo at the start. But his rivals in the other sets are no more sensitive at that point and elsewhere fall short. Among the others Gwynne Howell also sings nobly in the big solo of ‘Che faranno i viecchi miei’, and there is not a weak link in the Covent Garden team with the vocal ensemble and chorus setting standards rarely achieved on record. Paul Hudson as the Indian Billy Jackrabbit in Act 2 must also be specially noted.
But if there is one contribution which sets the seal on the whole project and makes it an essential set for any Puccinian it is the singing of Carol Neblett as the Girl of the Golden West herself. On stage I admired her big finely projected voice, but had doubts about how well and how evenly it would record. It is not just that my doubts are allayed, but that Carol Neblett emerges as a superb recording artist with a voice which takes richly and smoothly to the microphone, at least as balanced here. It is a heart-warming performance from first to last. We do not always realize how taxing a role it is, for the high notes have to be attacked with a nerve of steel when they are particularly exposed, usually with no lead-up whatever. Tebaldi and Nilsson in the first top C (during the brief but richly melodic climax of ‘Laggiu nel Soledad’) let out noises too closely related to the hoot of an angry locomotive, where Neblett manages still to ravish the ear, while her flexibility in her Act 2 aria is delectable. After all, at Salzburg last year she made a remarkable Vitellia in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, and clean coloratura is part of her vocal equipment. Best of all in her performance is her pleading solo in Act 3 which would melt the heart of a stone, let alone those of weeping goldminers. All told, a magnificent set, which should richly reward DG’s enterprise in undertaking it. The recording quality is superb too, clean and brilliant but warmly atmospheric with Puccini’s many offstage effects nicely caught. Edward Greenfield
GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 5