|Mark Delavan and Patricia Racette (photo by Ken Howard)|
Puccini's heroines have been called "piccole donne" but upon closer examination we observe that they have great strength of character. In the case of La Fanciulla del West, seen last night at the Santa Fe Opera, Minnie, the titular character, manages to handle a large diverse group of gritty miners and also to fight for her man. The libretto was derived from Girl of the Golden West, a play by David Belasco, who also wrote the play which inspired Puccini's Madama Butterfly.
Belasco wanted to portray the West with a realism unknown at the turn of the 20th century. The men in the mining camps of mid 19th c. California participated in the Gold Rush to provide for their families or to get rich. They came from all over and often suffered from despair and loneliness. Somehow we were made to think of Ping, Pang, and Pong in Puccini's Turandot, longing for the peace and comfort of home.
Minnie is a notoriously difficult role to sing but soprano Patricia Racette rose to the challenge, tackling the difficult tessitura with her customary aplomb and throwing herself completely into the role, earning a vociferous standing ovation at the end. Minnie, with all her life experience, has never been kissed and experiences her first romance with the gentleman bandit Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson, who is leader of a band of highwaymen, come to her saloon probably to rob the men of their savings.
They fall in love and Minnie, with impressive loyalty, overcomes her anger at the deception, and hides Johnson (tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones) from Sheriff Jack Rance (bass-baritone Mark Delavan). Both male roles were sung with fine tone and commitment, providing a dramatic situation of great suspense.
We particularly enjoyed the scene in which Minnie, generally an honorable sort, resorts to cheating at poker to make sure that she beats Rance, who is so taken with her that he was willing to pay $1000. for a kiss--a kiss she happily gave to Johnson for free. At this point in the story, Puccini's music fades away and there is only the low murmur of the kettle drums. Of course, we know what is going to happen and yet Puccini's magic had us on the edge of our seat.
Emmanuel Villaume's conducting was exemplary, as was the work of the chorus (directed by Susanne Sheston). Actually, the miners are not exactly a chorus, since each man has a name and a specific personality. One of them, Larkens (Adrian Smith), is so lonely and depressed that his buddies take up a collection to send him home. Baritone Craig Verm made a fine showing as the reasonable Sonora. The Wells Fargo agent Ashby was well portrayed by bass Raymond Aceto. The sizable role of Nick the bartender was finely enacted by tenor Allan Glassman.
We recognized several of the Apprentices as well, including baritone Jared Bybee as Handsome, tenor Galeano Salas in the chorus, and a strangely pregnant Wokle sung by Kristen Choi .
If there was any fault to be found in this splendid evening, it would have to be the production, which was a co-production with the English National Opera. Director Richard Jones seemed to lack a feel for place and period and the spare sets by Miriam Buether failed to convince. The saloon had a tin ceiling but the bare metal tables and chairs looked entirely too slick and modern. And why would the Marshall's Office have a large picture window? Mimi's cabin did sport gas lighting but looked neither weathered nor thrown together. It reminded us of a skier's A-frame.
We did like the set-up of showing Minnie's office off to one side of the saloon and another room to the other side, where the miners withdrew to dance with one another, somewhat reminiscent of the four young men of La Boheme who prance around their garret to keep their spirits up.
The miner's costumes (Nicky Gellibrand) were appropriately scruffy but Minnie's dresses did not suggest the period of the Gold Rush.
The hanging scene in the final act was particularly poorly handled. We can surely overlook the lack of horses onstage but there was no scaffolding set up, nor even a tree-- just a box only a few inches off the ground and a rope descending from on high. This hanging would never have worked!
Fortunately, the excellent cast and marvelous music trumped the production's shortcomings.
© meche kroop