Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani
in The Girl of the Golden West
(© Ken Howard)
Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani
in The Girl of the Golden West
(© Ken Howard)
When Giacomo Puccini finished The Girl of the Golden West a century ago, he wrote a friend, "The Girl has come out, in my opinion, the best opera I have written." So far history has yet to agree with the maestro's judgment, and the return of Giancarlo del Monaco's 1991 workman-like production at the Metropolitan Opera -- with Deborah Voigt debuting in the title role -- is unlikely to convince large numbers of Puccini lovers to his side.

Because the oopera (also known as La Fanciulla del West) is an unabashed melodrama, it isn't the heated quality of the tale that keeps it from wowing audiences. Nor is it the abundance of the plot's holes. On the contrary, what doesn't sit with many opera fans is that, as opposed to La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, Puccini chose to keep his music virtually aria-free and concentrated instead -- often with great subtlety -- on brooding orchestral passages.

Unquestionably, however, there are bracingly dramatic moments in both Puccini's music -- well conducted here by Nicola Luisotti -- and in the libretto crafted by Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civinini from David Belasco's hit play The Girl of the Golden West. For example, there's the tense poker game played by saloon owner Minnie (Voigt) and jealous sheriff Jack Rance (Lucio Gallo) for possession of the bandit Dick Johnson, also known as Ramerrez (Marcello Giordani). It's a game that the normally upstanding Minnie wins by cheating!

There's also the high C Minnie hits when the dashing Johnson gives her a first kiss. Or how about the moment when Rance arrives, spills the beans about Dick's being the marauding Ramerrez, and subsequently shoots the outlaw -- after which the disillusioned Minnie realizes she loves the galoot anyway. And one must mention the beautifully composed, conciliatory third act, in which Rance and his posse are about to hang Dick (here on Michael Scott's stunning forced-perspective California mining-town set) before the inevitable happy ending occurs.

As might be expected, Voigt nails that high C and a few others with golden assurance, although there were times when, because her middle range is less grounded, she seems to seize with excessive enthusiasm any opportunity to go into her upper range. Meanwhile, Giordani serves up the evening's most robust and sympathetic singing, especially delivering the aria "Ch'ella mi creda" with tender force.

As the brooding and conniving Rance, Gallo cuts a commanding figure, but his voice frequently gives the impression of a large bird attempting to escape from a small cage. Of the other men stomping around in the first and third act, Edward Parks convincingly plays Jim Larkens' mad-miner scene, and Oren Gradus -- with the aid of the male chorus -- makes Puccini's version of a Stephen Foster-like folk song about old folks at home quite poignant.

Over the years, wags have dubbed this work, Puccini's "horse opera." Since not one but two horses swell the cast in this mounting, the phrase is literally true. Still, this revival proceeds not at a gallop but at a canter.