BWW Review: LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST at Winter Opera St. Louis
St. Louis's wonderful Winter Opera closes it's thirteenth season with a fine production of a rarely-seen work by Puccini--La fanciulla del West, or The Girl of the Golden West. Now Puccini was fond of choosing exotic settings for his operas--look at Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Well, to a European, Fanciulla is equally exotic. It's set in a mining camp in the Sierra Nevadas during the California Gold Rush of 1848.
Now in recent decades four Puccini operas rank among the thirteen most frequently produced operas in the world. La fanciulla del West, however, just barely makes it into the top one hundred. So as a great fan of Puccini I have long awaited the gift that Winter Opera gave us last night.
We see an iconic Western saloon. The set is in fragments to reveal behind and over it a vast craggy mountain-scape. This is yet another marvel by scenic designer Scott Loebl. The saloon is owned by Minnie, the only woman in this rough masculine world. She is surrounded by fourteen miners, a bar-tender and a lustful sheriff--plus, eventually, a Pony Express rider, a Wells Fargo agent and two banditos. The only other woman in this tale is Minnie's pregnant Indian servant, Wowkle. Now Wowkle (Erin Haupt) has a really charming duet with her fiancé, Billy Jackrabbit (Jeremy Gussin), but those two are quite small roles, so it's really just one soprano against all those men.
This may have something to do with the rarity of Fanciulla productions.
But the singers in the central roles at Winter Opera are stunningly good. When I heard Karen Kanakis in a supporting role two years ago in L'elisir d'amore I wrote that I wanted "to hear that lovely voice in a much larger role." Well, a wish come true! Here she is as Minnie, the centerpiece of Fanciulla, and she triumphs in the role. Her kindness, grace and beauty have won the hearts of all the miners. In a charming scene she gives a sort of Sunday-school lesson to the miners. It's reminiscent of Wendy's relationship with the Lost Boys.
Jorge Pita Carreras sings the role of Dick Johnson (secretly the bandit chief, Ramerrez). This is the fourth romantic hero Carreras has sung for Winter Opera in the past five seasons, and again he does glorious work with it.
And John Robert Green gives a very strong performance as Jack Rance, the sheriff who is desperately in love with Minnie. He is kind of the villain. (Well, he's dressed all in black.) And he's very forceful in pressing his suit against the reluctant Minnie. He offers her $1,000 for a kiss. But Minnie is the heroine of this Victorian melodrama. She has not given her first kiss, so of course she declines the offer.
Among the supporting roles let me just praise basso Jeremy Gussin (Billy Jackrabbit) for his powerful rich voice and Mark Freiman for his very solid and convincing portrayal of Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent.
After a rather slow first act, where we begin to itch for a real Puccini aria, Minnie invites the stranger "Dick Johnson" to her cabin in the hills. (Well, exemplar of Victorian purity though she may be, she knows that this is the man for her.) Their love duet is Puccini at his very best. Kanakis and Carreras soar into romantic rapture!
But the sheriff and his posse pursue the bandit. Only a high-stakes poker game between Minnie and the Sheriff can save Ramerrez. And, of course, when true love is at stake it's OK to cheat a little.
Now we have echoes not only of Peter Pan, but of Pirates of Penzance. Ramerrez is only reluctantly a bandit chief. His father had led the bandit gang, but when the father died our hero had to take on that role to support his mother and family. In Act 3 we see him captured and facing death by hanging. Carreras does gorgeous work with his final aria, "Ch'ella mi creda", where he begs the miners not to tell Minnie of his inglorious hanging. But Minnie steps in and, drawing on the love she has inspired in all the miners, she persuades them to embrace forgiveness--and to allow Ramerrez to achieve redemption. Off into the sunset they go!
The score is filled with a sophisticated orchestration and harmonies. There are wonderfully soaring chorus passages. In tense moments there is a compelling Indian drum beat. A Zuni melody provides the basis for the duet between Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle. You'll recognize a wisp or two that Andrew Lloyd Weber stole for Phantom.
The fine orchestra is led by Dario Salvi. Jeeson Eun is Chorus Master. With stage direction by Jon Truitt, costumes by Felia Davenport and lighting by Natali Arco this is yet another splendid production by Winter Opera.
Puccini based Girl of the Golden West on a play by that great impresario David Belasco. Belasco also wrote the play on which Madama Butterfly was based, but this gold-rush tale is closer to his own life experience. Belasco's parents moved from London to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. When David was twenty he was working in theater in Virginia City at the peak of its great Silver Rush. There, he said, he found "more reckless women and desperadoes to the square foot than anywhere else in the world". So beneath all the melodramatic style so typical of the period there lie real people whom Belasco knew.
This lovely new production played at Winter Opera St. Louis on March 6 and 8, 2020.