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Carlo Rizzi’s idiomatic conducting draws excellent singing from the large cast and fine playing from The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. © 2016 Read complete review

Jeffrey Kauffman, January 2011

Mention the phrase “Italian opera” and, speaking of the 19th century at least, you’ll get two names and only two names, Verdi and Puccini. Puccini of course continued to work on into the early 20th century, but despite a slew of imitators and even innovators who followed in his wake, his name was the one most firmly associated with Italian opera, especially that of a certain grandiosity and emotionally hyperbolic appeal. And so what is one to make of Puccini’s “American opera,” a wild west piece that actually received its world premiere not in the rarified atmosphere of La Scala, but New York’s good old Metropolitan? In fact Puccini’s La fanciulla del West was the first ever world premiere at that transcendent institution, and it was a premiere which caught the public’s fancy in no small way. As with Puccini’s previous international success Madama Butterfly, the composer had taken a play by renowned playwright David Belasco (after whom the Broadway theater where so many epochal hits have played is named), in this case The Girl of the Golden West. (Film fans may know that Belasco’s play was filmed several times, including an early silent direct by Cecil B. de Mille, and, in the late 1930’s, a musical version—not based on Puccini—featuring none other than Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald). As with someone “looking in from the outside,” as it were, Puccini and his librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini romanticize their source material, draping it in, if not outright irony, at least a bit of skepticism. And so it’s perhaps at least a little understandable that director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, who has chalked up a variety of at times patently bizarre Wagner reinterpretations over the past several years, should decide to “update” this supposed Wild West story in terms of Wall Street and Hollywood.

A worldly yet virginal saloon owner, Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek), runs a tight ship, which in Lehnhoff’s conception seems to be a leather clad gay bar. When people brawl, she steps in and recites passages from the Bible. The Gold Rush mining setting of Belasco’s original play and Puccini’s initial adaptation has here been updated to Wall Street, or at least one supposes from the film elements which show traders oogling falling cascades of dollar bills. Does this work within the confines of something which is otherwise shown as being a sort of Hollywood version of the Wild West, including singing troubadors in fringed jackets (think Glen Campbell)? No, not really, and in fact Lehnhoff seems to have misinterpreted the source material fairly badly in this instance. Neither Belasco’s play nor Puccini’s opera is about the false glamour and illusion of Hollywood, whether that be in its portrayal of the west or not. Nor is it really about outright greed and a mercenary spirit, making the Wall Street angle odd at the very least. The Girl of the Golden West was certainly not Belasco’s most literary achievement (and some would similarly argue it’s not Puccini’s greatest operatic one). The play, and Puccini’s opera, are better seen as nothing more than a simple starcrossed love scenario between Minnie and the outlaw, Ramirez ( ), with whom she falls in love. The rest is really only window dressing.

Despite the generally wrong headed approach Lehnhoff takes in this production, there’s actually quite a lot here to maintain interest. Though patently ridiculous at times (especially in the second act, which takes place within the fuzzy pink confines of what appears to be a trailer), the production design by Raimund Bauer is quite arresting and at the very least gives the eye a lot to take in. The third act is at once silly but also strangely effective, taking place in a junkyard full of piled cars. Not exactly the first thing that pops into American minds when you mention a possible lynching of a criminal, is it?

Westbroek has made her mark in a number of Wagnerian roles, and that heaviness of tone isn’t easily applicable to the relatively lighter fare of Puccini, especially in this piece which lacks the gravitas of some of the composer’s grander operas. She’s not terribly facile here, but she manages a deeply burnished tone and offers a nicely nuanced performance. Zoran Todorovich as Ramirez (who assumes the fake identity of Dick Johnson to evade the law) is passable but not impressive, and he seems to tire as the show goes on, with some intonation problems resulting.

Musically the best thing about this production is the assured conducting of Carlo Rizzo, leading the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in a nicely balanced and passionate reading of the score. While this is not Puccini’s finest moment, despite critical brickbats having been thrown at this score for over one hundred years now, it really has a wealth of melodic material and the orchestra especially is handled with an ease and maturity that shows Puccini off admirably as the impeccable craftsman he was. It’s probably no accident that Andrew Lloyd Webber evidently chose this score to “inspire” his writing of The Phantom of the Opera, as a celebrated plagiarism case (and out of court settlement with the Puccini Estate) proved.

Video Quality

La fanciulla del West arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded image in 1080i and 1.78:1. Unfortunately, this is one of the lesser offerings we’ve received from Opus Arte, with a garish and sometimes unpleasant appearance that has the tendency to bloom slightly, especially in the over the top red scenes, which are plentiful in this production. That tendency toward blooming robs the sets of a lot of detail. Costumes and skin tones fare somewhat better, with good detail and acceptable sharpness and clarity. Contrast is fine when the blooming isn’t getting in the way, and black levels are stable.

Audio Quality

La fanciulla del West is presented with two very good lossless audio options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mix and an LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. Fidelity and dynamic range are excellent throughout the opera, with brilliant reproduction of Puccini’s soaring orchestral accompaniments. While there isn’t any egregious problem with the balance between the singers and the orchestra, overall I personally would have preferred all of the vocals to have been mixed just slightly more up front into the overall soundfield. Surrounds are utilized effectively for hall ambience here, adding a nice degree of spaciousness to the overall sonic experience.

Special Features and Extras

Aside from the in-depth insert booklet, we have two supplements on the Blu-ray itself:

  • Backstage Insights (1080i; 20:47) offers some interviews with cast and crew and background on the production.
  • Cast Gallery

Overall Score and Recommendation

Lehnhoff is one of those directors who wants to put his mark on hoary classics. Sometimes he does very well with his reinterpretations and sometimes, frankly, he falls flat. This Fanciulla falls somewhere in between. It has interesting, if not completely successful, elements, but it also seems quite wide of the rather narrow mark that both Belasco and Puccini himself probably had in mind for their story. Nonetheless, this is an underappreciated piece of Puccini’s, and deserves a wider audience, and for that reason alone I give a somewhat ambivalent recommendation to those who may be curious either about the opera itself, or this particular production of it.

Gramophone, January 2011

In its Blu-ray release, complete with a choice of stereo or very dynamic DTS-HD Master 5.0 surround sound, the foibles of this stylised production are readily apparent, simply because the audio-visual spectacle is so impressive. From its opening bar full of leather-clad cowboys “Hello”-ing each other, I’m not sure it could be much higher camp had it been set a couple of thousand feet below the summit of K2, but it’s hard not to be swept along with the whole slightly daft enterprise, and the video and DTS sound have both impact and plenty of detail.

Lawrence Devoe, December 2010

The Performance

Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West or “Girl of the Golden West” premiered 100 years ago at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with musical heavyweights Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini! Since then, it has lived in the shadows of more popular Puccini works like La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. This is unfortunate as Fanciulla contains a load of great music and dramatic situations. The opera, set in the California Gold Rush of the 1850’s, combines the usual ingredients of love triangles, concealed identity and threat of death. Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek) is the proprietress of the Polka bar, the hangout of law-abiding miners and not-so-law-abiding thieves. Dick Johnson AKA the outlaw Ramerrez (Zoran Todorovich) shows up and proceeds to woo Minnie away from corrupt sheriff, Jack Rance (Lucio Gallo). Fanciulla’s dramatic high point is a poker game between Minnie and Rance for Johnson’s life. In the finale, she saves Johnson from a lynching party and they go off together, presumably happy ever after.

Video Quality

Nicholas Lehnhoff’s production moves the Old West to a contemporary urban setting which leads to some visual incongruities. The first and third acts are extremely dark but contain some excellent close ups and stage panoramas. The opening montages of the stock market and closing overlay of greenbacks on Minnie and Dick Johnson may symbolize “the root of all evil” but make little dramatic sense. The male cast is outfitted in heavy leather and the Polka saloon looks like either a biker or gay bar. Minnie’s Act II set is a very bright hot pink mobile home, nothing like the humble log cabin of a virginal heroine. The final act is set in an auto junkyard. Its finale is completely at odds with the opera’s original version that has Minnie shooting the rope intended to hang Dick Johnson. The unintentionally humorous ending features Minnie as a glammed-up Ginger Rogers and Dick Johnson as a tuxedoed Fred Astaire descending a Hollywood staircase with MGM’s Leo the Lion roaring on the screen. The overall video quality, in spite of these significant reservations about the sets and staging, is excellent.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio conveys excellent balance between voices and orchestra, commendable given the Wagnerian proportions of this score. Maestro Carlo Rizzi leads his forces with near-perfect pacing, essential to maintaining the plot’s dramatic tensions. But opera is about singing and this is where the results are mixed. Eva-Maria Westbroek is intense and dramatically compelling. She succeeds perfectly until her voice is pushed into its upper register where it sounds stressed. The same can be said for co-star Zoran Todorovich who is an otherwise virile and convincing leading man. The vocal star of this production is baritone Lucio Gallo, whose Italianate style and snarling baritone are outstanding. The supporting cast of miners, a critical element to the success of this opera, is quite strong with kudos to the tattooed bartender, Nick (Roman Sadnik).

Supplemental Materials

The supplemental material includes photos and interviews with the principals. The backstage interviews are fun but mostly fluff and add little to the understanding of this unusual production.

The Definitive Word


This is the first Blu-ray of an unjustly neglected Puccini opera. The eccentric staging of this BD can be distracting, and, at times vexing, particularly in its re-scripted finale. On the good side, the overall performance values are very high and gave me the visceral music drama experience that I want opera to give me all the time.

Richard Fairman
Gramophone, December 2010

Netherlands Opera’s golden girl brings star quality to her Minnie

Fired up by its sensational Tosca, available on DVD from Decca, the Netherlands Opera clearly wanted a repeat of its earlier winner. The director for La fanciulla del West was again Nikolaus Lehnhoff and, although this new production from December last year was not a unqualified success, Lehnhoff’s vision for it certainly set its sights just as high. What we see is an updated parable of the American dream. While capitalism rages in the city skyscrapers, the “miners” skulk around in underground bars and car-breakers’ yards. Minnie lives in a trailer, painted shocking pink inside and with a statuette of the Madonna on top of the television set. Her dream is to escape the drudgery of a blue-collar existence and in the final scene she appears, like Jean Harlow, at the top of a glittering staircase to be carried off to a Hollywood happy ending, while a film of the MGM lion growls away happily on the backdrop. Does it all make sense? Not really; but the characters are vividly portrayed and the settings look spectacular.

In musical terms the performance is a good one without upstaging earlier DVD versions (for instance, the La Scala production, 10/04). Eva-Maria Westbroek, a local “golden girl” in Amsterdam, won a big personal success as Minnie and brings star quality to the role, even if her top notes do not ring out as easily as they might. In the theatre, perhaps aided by the sound enhancement system, Zoran Todorovich sounded mightily impressive and his rough diamond Dick Johnson, sung with brassy tenor self-confidence, remains an asset here. Lucio Gallo, though, sounds worn as Jack Rance and the supporting cast has some weaknesses. Carlo Rizzi keeps the score on a tight rein—too tight where Puccini’s music asks to caress the heart—but the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra plays scrupulously for him.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, November 2010

Carlo Rizzi’s version of Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West arrives at an interesting time on Blu-ray when so many action features badly emulating Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns keep turning up, only to be rightly forgotten. This is not trying to do that, yet its themes of Wall Street big money and corruption updated here make a great flipside to Leone’s A Fistful Of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker aka Once Upon A Time…Revolution) which most experts consider his greatest film and it was his last Spaghetti Western. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra (directed on stage by Nikolaus Lehnhoff) delivers a distinct work that can be as colorful as it can be dark. Impressive and maybe those trying to emulate those Leone classics ought to make this required viewing.

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