I get giddy when I experience a night of opera that sheds light on why this unique art form is simply irresistible…WHEN IT IS DONE RIGHT! No I am no reactionary who has a thing for 18th Century costumes (Ok, men had much more interesting fashion back then, and I would like it back. We are boring today–But I digress) but the updating of opera in the hands of unimaginative directors with a particular diabolical skill to sell operatic ridicule to general directors has undermined the intrinsic value of opera as an art form. Yet once in a while, a production brings together all the elements for an unforgettable night of opera. “Flickan”, short for Flickan från Västern (Swedish for La Fanciulla del West) is the way I will always remember this opera because it is difficult for me to imagine a more visually inventive theatrical rendering of this Puccini opera deserving of so much more than the occasional production. The word is that the Royal Opera Stockholm is producing its first commerical DVD with this production and I can attest that it will be an unforgettable debut.
First, Christof Loy’s production is a thing of genius! Evoking early silent westerns, Charlie Chaplin, and even the great westerns of the 1950s and 60s when technicolor turned the broad landscapes of the American West into cinematic symbology, Mr. Loy turned Puccini’s operatic Western from the precipice of parody to a multi-layered texture, juxtaposing the tender and dangerous love triangle between the three main characters and the colorful, lighthearted ensemble of miners. The overture was accompanied by a film of Nina Stemme astride a horse in what is reminiscent of the great Arizona desert. At the end of the overture she bursts literally through the screen, guns in hand. His treatment of the Native-American couple, Billy Jack-Rabbit and Wowkie, weaves a paradoxical thread of comic parody and innocent humanity whereby the latter dominates the moment without undermining the inherent value of the former. To what seems a nod to Schindler’s List‘s girl in the red dress, in one of the most touching choruses, Mr. Loy brought the lights down on the live characters, whose forms where projected on the set with a grey-scale silent film effect while the bartender Nick, clad in a crimson vest was clearly and wistfully lit center stage!
Maestro Pier Giorgio Morandi who inspired the Gothenburg Opera last year in a poetic reading of Lucia di Lamermoor has become a mainstay at the Royal Opera and for good reason. The Royal Opera Orchestra seemed overjoyed to be playing this piece for the first time. Maestro Morandi brought out every color and turn, all the time keeping the balance between singers and orchestra at ideal proportions. Not one word was missed, since he mouthed every single one. An old school conductor of extraordinary skill and energy, Maestro Morandi kept the musical tension on a knife’s edge when needed and exploded with the choruses like the dynamite charges at the end of Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars.
But all of that would have had no value if the singers were not so extraordinary. Like in Tosca, this love triangle does no work unless the three lead singers evoke great empathy. Other than the now celebrated tenor aria “Ch’ella mi creda,” there are no memorable set pieces in this opera. The dramatic relationship between the actors is what makes this work. But of course there is no operatic drama without voices to project text and emotion. On this occasion there was no lack of vocal metal. And precious metals they were. The combination of Nina Stemme’s dark-hued, chocolaty voice and her unique stage presence that borders on the spiritual makes for a Minnie that is at once liberating in her feminist independence, warding off the advances of so many suitors and heartwarming in the innocence of her love for Johnson/Ramirrez. Stemme has one of the rare voices that is totally convincing in both the Italian and German repertory. A combination of almost Latin squillo and Nordic warmth. When Aleksandrs Antonenko took the stage, there was no doubt in the midst of this large crowd of men that the lead tenor had walked in. He exudes danger! From moment one there was no doubt that he was both outlaw and lover, and he never had to draw his weapon. He opens his mouth and one can hear the murmurs in the capacity crowd. This is the Spinto tenor of our times, as exciting vocally as he is dramatically. No lack of metal in the sound (in this case pure gold), his high notes are simply stentorian. This is a tenor voice for the big Italian roles. Having seen him live as both The False Dimitri in Boris Godunov and Muti’s Carnegie Hall Otello this year, this third time confirms in my mind that this is a tenor ready to take his place among the greats. The combination of Antonenko and Stemme should be enjoyed in many other Italian combinations. I can think of a few I would like to hear. Aida anyone? The cast of principles was beautifully rounded out by the powerful baritone of John Lundgren a Swede who makes the Copenhagen Opera his current home. Incisive and squillante and a warmth that evokes not only Scarpia but future Wagnerian roles. Mr. Lundgren was a perfect foil in every way for the lovers. The ensemble of the Royal Opera lead by Niklas Björling Rygert as Nick was a parade of excellent Swedish singers who we should keep in our minds.
The house of Birgit, Jussi and Nicolai has constantly given birth to new generations of great opera singers and absorbing all of this from the Soloist’s Box, (courtesy of the Royal Opera since the show was deservedly sold out–thank you), I have no doubt that opera is in no danger of dying soon. The recipe has always been the same: Great singers, period! Good if they’re pretty too but not the other way around (You know: Pretty, good if they can sing too); A conductor who loves opera passionately and loves to hear singers’ voices. A director who understands the dramatic power of music theater, that it begins with the music. It is interesting that so many modern directors use the music in opera as “incidental” and that Christof Loy evokes film but keeps the music as the driving force of the opera, as it should be! With Katharina Thalbach’s Barbiere at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2009, this is the finest directorial effort I have seen in the last ten years! Thank You Kungliga Operan for “Flickan”!