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Il Fanciullo del West - Cleveland Orchestra 5/17/23

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Opera in Concert: The Girl of the Golden West - Cleveland Orchestra 5/17/23

I love the totality of the sound picture Puccini creates in La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). I think it just might be his masterpiece at least to my sensibilities. In 3 recent performances Franz Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra offered a lush, house filling reading of this remarkable work with a fine cast and one phenomenon.

That phenomenon is Limmie Pulliam. If this man is singing anywhere in your vicinity rush to book a ticket as this is a voice that needs to be heard live. When most singers put pressure on their instrument the seams often start to show. When Mr. P puts pressure on his, the sound becomes even richer and his power seems limitless. Dick Johnson's big moments - his tortured "Una parola sola," and of course Ch' ella mi creda libera..." rattled the house with beautifully poised "tenoring" - no braying, no forcing, just pure emotion expressed by a glorious human voice.
In addition to the Cleveland Orchestra itself, and Mr. Pulliam the other stand out was Russian singer Roman Burdenko as Sheriff Jack Rance. A smooth, rolling, baritone, he was a fitting vocal match for Pulliam’s opulence. Given the current dearth of quality voices in this register, he should be a godsend to any first-tier house looking for a Verdi baritone. Kudos to the Cleveland casting office for finding him.

Now the rub – Fanciulla herself. Our originally scheduled Minnie, Tamara Wilson canceled for “undisclosed reasons” according to one of the Cleveland Orchestra promotions. Wilson’s name was still in the program and unlike the MET, we got no little white slip announcing Emily Magee. As far as the Cleveland audience knew, she sang anonymously. Minnie is a killer role and perhaps that’s why Wilson ultimately canceled. At 57, Magee has the remains of a sizeable voice but it lacks a distinctive timbre and its cool colors seem more suited to Nordic rather than Italian roles. Her Act 1 was shrill and unpleasant and the character suffered, particularly in contrast to Pulliam and Burdenko. The Bible scene and Laggiu nel Soledad lacked warmth and went for nothing. Miraculously, her Acts 2 and 3 were a major improvement, the voice picking up spin and color. Despite a “biggish” voice she, unlike tenor and baritone, was sometimes swamped by Welser-Most and his band. All in all, for Magee it was a happy ending, but I still would not consider her having a Puccini friendly voice.

The Cleveland Orchestra is a world treasure, and thanks to Welser-Most we and they get to revel in a “Big Play” opera like this each year.

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