Emmy Destinn (Minnie) at the premiere of La Fanciulla del West
Puccini’s women are never one-dimensional. That is expressed in his music, but who still understands the intentions behind the notes? Good Minnies are scarce these days, and to find the best, one has to go back to the nineteen fifties/sixties.
Like Salome, Minnie is loved and desired by men. Well, you say, she is the only woman in a rough world of miners inhabited only by guys. But it’s not that simple. She lives all alone in a remote hut and a few minutes after meeting a strange man, she invites him to her house. She smokes, and drinks whiskey. And she loves a game of cards, cheating if necessary.
In the scene leading up to the poker game, she says to the sheriff, “Who are you, Jack Rance? The owner of a gambling joint. And Johnson? A bandit. And me? The owner of a saloon and a gambling joint, I live off whiskey and gold, dancing and faro. We’re all the same! We’re all bandits and cheats!”
Renata Tebaldi as Minnie
And I choose not to talk to you about Renata Tebaldi, even though she was one of the greatest (if not the greatest!) Minnie’s ever. She was lucky to have an exclusive contract with a leading record company (Decca), something her colleagues could only dream of.
Gigliola Frazzoni as Minnie with Franco Corelli (Johnson)
That explains why few people, apart from a few opera-diehards, have ever heard of Gigliola Frazzoni or Eleanor Steber (to name but two). Believe me: neither soprano is inferior to Tebaldi. Just pay attention to the range of emotions they have at their disposal. They cry, sob, scream, roar, beg, suffer and love. Verismo at its best. You don’t need a libretto to understand what’s going on here.
They sing as well, and how! All the notes are there. There’s no cheating. Well, something may go wrong during a live performance, but it is live, that’s drama, that’s opera. And let’s face it, when you play poker and your lover’s life is at stake, you don’t think about belcanto.
The recording with the American Eleanor Steber was made in 1954 at the Maggio Musicale in Florence (Regis RRC 2080). Steber’s soprano is very warm and despite the hysterical undertones of an almost perfect beauty.
Gian Giacomo Guelfi makes a devastating impression as Rance and the two together… well, forget Tosca and Scarpia! I don’t like Mario del Monaco, but Johnson was a role in which he truly shone. Mitropoulos conducts very dramatically with theatrical effects.
The recording can also be found on Spotify:
The registration with Gigliola Frazzoni was made at La Scala in April 1956 (a.o. Opera d’Oro1318). Frazzoni sings very movingly: it is not always beautiful, but what drama!
Franco Corelli is probably the most attractive bandit in history and Tito Gobbi as Jack Rance is a luxury. He is, what you call, a vocal actor. In his performance you can hear a lust for power and horniness, but also a kind of sentimental love.
Franco Corelli as Johnson
Gigliola Frazzoni and Franco Corelli in ‘Mister Johnson siete rimasto indietro…Povera gente’.
The whole recording on Spotify: