Eyvazov’s heroic performance highlights Met’s “La fanciulla del West”

Fri Oct 05, 2018 at 1:26 pm
Eva-Maria Westbroek and Yusif Eyvazov in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" Photo: Ken Howard

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Yusif Eyvazov in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s “La fanciulla del West” Photo: Ken Howard

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West seems an odd piece on its face, an operatic forerunner to the spaghetti Westerns of the silver screen, an Italian portrait of an American trope, sold back to Americans. 

Yet in a compelling performance, such as the Metropolitan Opera gave in the season premiere on Thursday night, what’s striking is how little it leans on its romanticized setting. It’s the touching relationships of the characters, rather than the bar brawls, bandits, and horse chases, that make the piece so effective.

Nonetheless, Giancarlo del Monaco’s 1991 production is about what you’d expect of an Italian opera set in the Old West: an inexplicably huge sawdust-floor saloon, a spacious cabin right at the foot of a mountain. It is, at any rate, evocative: the desolate street of Act III, with leaves and tumbleweeds blowing past, is a perfect setting for the high-stakes confrontations that finally resolve the plot.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was mostly successful in the title role, though it never felt like a perfect match. Minnie’s particular combination of hard-nosed, gunslinging frontier woman and bright-eyed ingénue is a tricky balance to strike. Westbroek was most successful in the latter, convincing more as a young woman swept suddenly off her feet than as the carbine-toting hostess who breaks up a bar fight by putting a round in the ceiling.

There was a lot to commend Westbroek’s vocal performance—at her best, she found a focused intensity, especially in moments of urgent passion. Yet her dark-hued soprano on the whole sounded worn, growing alarmingly wide in sustained singing, and losing color in her upper range. In Thursday’s performance she didn’t seem to have the top of the part at all: she clipped many of her high notes to avoid sitting on them while they strained.

Yusif Eyvazov, meanwhile, seems tailor-made for the role of Dick Johnson. His tenor is massive, powerful, and bright—the sort of instrument that sounds like it should be hard to control, and yet he manages to corral it into tight, nuanced phrases, magnifying the impact when he sings at full voice. Combined with his earnest portrayal of a career bandit trying to reform himself, Eyvazov’s performance was irresistible. “Ch’ella mi creda libero” was the knock-out aria that it ought to be, an expansive, shining, impassioned climax to the emotional turmoil of the plot.

There were shades of Baron Scarpia in Željko Lučić’s imperious Jack Rance. A stage manager warned before the first curtain that he was suffering from a cold, but you would hardly have detected it otherwise: apart from sounding a little smaller than usual, Lučić was in fine form, his uncannily smooth baritone lending the crooked sheriff an extra dash of menace. There was a coldness to his reading of the role, as he sought to guard his inner emotions in all but the most anxious of moments. The closest he came to an outburst was at the end of the tense poker scene, when he threw his cards down, snatched up his hat, and dashed to the door with a curt “buona notte.”

An impressive supporting cast filled out the mining town, beginning with Michael Todd Simpson as Sonora, who brought a firm, robust baritone and sang with a slight weariness that lent some depth to the character. Carlo Bosi was affable as the barkeep Nick, albeit with a rather wiry tenor. It’s easy for Jake Wallace’s homesick lament in Act I to become comical, but there was an earnest sadness in Oren Gradus’s rendition, delivered in a rich bass. Matthew Rose showed a wooly tone and gritty demeanor as Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent.

Kidon Choi stood out among the cameo roles with his rough-hewn baritone as José Castro, one of Ramirez’s band. Maryann McCormick lacked a low voice but showed a nice, liquid middle as Wowkle, while Philip Cokorinos was a model character bass with a big, husky sound as Billy Jackrabbit.

Marco Armiliato led the Met Orchestra capably, if not imaginatively, keeping a fairly tight dramatic range for a score with such color and contrast, though he did manage to keep up a riveting tension in the second act. The men of the Met chorus were at their very best—boisterous in their brawling, but melting in the warmth of their sound as they expressed their deep longings and fears.

La fanciulla del West runs through October 27 at the Metropolitan Opera. Jonas Kaufmann takes over the role of Dick Johnson starting October 17. metopera.org


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