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JPost.com Living Music Article

Israel Opera rides west


After a season that saw operatic heroines lose their lives in a variety of poses, the Israel Opera rides into the summer sunset with a happy ending.

Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, his least-played opera, is a rarity in a genre that likes to see and hear women die aesthetic deaths. It is also the world's first spaghetti western.

The heroine, Minnie, is a feisty chick in leather chaps who runs a saloon and can ride, shoot, and play poker with the best of them. However, she falls in love with the worst of them, an outlaw, whom she saves first from the sheriff's wrath and eventually from himself.

It's also an unusual role for Janice Baird, the American star soprano who will perform her debut in the role in the opera, which begins this Thursday at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.

Feted by critics across North America and Europe as one of today's most exciting Wagnerian voices, Baird is also famously serious about her acting.

After a season singing Elektra and Salome in theaters across Europe, is Minnie a welcome break from tragedy?

"It's wonderful - the first role where I live til the end," she says, laughing.

"Minnie is an incredibly touching character, unbelievably strong and feminine and also touchingly na ve. She's one of the most romantic roles I've ever played."

Too romantic, some critics charge.

Despite the success of Fanciulla's New York premiere in 1910, the work has suffered from accusations of excessive sentimentality and has never quite made it into the canon of "serious" operas.

But while some find it manipulative in its sentimentality, others find it cathartic.

Baird points out that the work was written shortly after a traumatic incident in Puccini's life. His wife had accused him of having an affair with a young maid who subsequently committed suicide when the scandal grew. But an autopsy after her death revealed that she had been a virgin.

"I think Puccini caught something very real in this opera," says Baird.

"For him it's an homage to a certain kind of delicateness.

"Our senses are so coarsened" - she uses the German word, "abgestumpft" "that it's hard to remember that a kiss between a man and a woman is a momentous thing."

In fact, the true reason Fanciulla remains something of an ugly stepsister to Tosca and La Boh me is the music. The score is one of Puccini's most modern, with strong Impressionist influences, allusions to American popular music such as the "Cakewalk" and "Ragtime," and virtually no big expansive arias.

In that sense, the work does fit in with Baird's usual repertoire of late 19th- and early 20th-century works that weave the vocal lines into a continuous dramatic whole.

One unlikely early champion of the work was Anton Webern, who enthused about it to fellow composer Schoenberg.

"An original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise," he described Puccini's Wild West opera, "not a trace of kitsch."