Santa Fe, N.M. — Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) is rarely staged, for a number of good reasons and a handful of excuses. Thus, it is a special occasion to see it in a fine production at the Santa Fe Opera.
In 1910, when the opera was premiered, the western genre of films was already familiar to audiences. It was a favorite setting for many of the films of the silent era. They could be full of flying hooves and fists of action and didn’t require much in the way of dialogue, and only required a rudimentary plot to hang it on. In 1903, The Great Train Robbery, starring Broncho Billy Anderson, thrilled audiences everywhere. Countless westerns followed, enough to fill an entire cable channel. But that was just the warm up. In 1954, we first met Davy Crocket and the world went western mad.
Practically everyone in the audience on Tuesday night either owned a coonskin cap and set of six shooters or knew a child who did. Cowboys and Indians was a favorite childhood game for the baby boomers and it was such an innocent time that no one thought a thing about the kids in the backyard murdering each other with open carry firearms.
So setting the opera in the California gold rush era had a lot of baggage from the start. Somehow, seeing Japanese women singing in Italian wasn’t as silly as seeing western-style characters singing in it. The David Belasco play on which it was based was in English so there were some translation problems. For example, the term “boys” was frequently used to designate a crowd of men, or a gang (“Come on, boys”). The Italian word used in the opera is ragazzi, which means children—something you would use addressing a first grade classroom. There were unintended laughs in the audience on Tuesday, “whiskey per tutti,” and they frequent use of “hello.”
But no one was laughing at the production, only with it.
One reason the opera is seldom produced is that there is a dearth of soprani who can take on the daunting role of Minnie, “The Girl” of the title. It is a famous voice killer. Fortunately, Santa Fe has Patricia Racette, who has vocal cords made out of titanium. She is also one of our finest actors. In this, although their voices couldn’t be more different, she is like a modern day Maria Callas. Her vivid portrayals leave “acting” far behind: she inhabits the character. She doesn’t sing Minnie, she is Minnie.
But by the end, even she started to sound tired. Little wonder—the second act has some of the most intense singing in the soprano repertoire and has been the final resting place of many a soprano who dared to attempt it.
But no matter how spectacular a singer you may have for Minnie, she relies on strong performances from others in the cast to make it work. As Dick (an unfortunate name for the studly love interest), Gwyn Hughes Jones displays a refreshingly bright sounding tenor, but with plenty of oomph for Puccini’s well-known ability to write swoon-inducing high notes. He creates a believable character, the bandit who is a good guy deep down and capable of stealing Minnie’s heart with nothing more than a chance meeting. He is especially believable in the last two acts when is he severely wounded but still has to carry on.
Sherriff Jack Rance is also after Minnie, and for a long time before Dick shows up. Baritone Mark Delavan radiates jealousy and barely contains rage. He certainly has the required stentorian sound and generates the proper supercilious sneer of an Old West lawman. His portrayal is slightly on the monochromatic side, but Puccini doesn’t give him much to work with, and Racette’s Technicolor Minnie is a hard act to follow.
The bartender is portrayed by another fine singing actor, tenor Allan Glassman. He recently was a chilling Herodes, Tetrarch of Judaea, in the San Antonio production of Salome with Racette singing her first (surely of many) Salomes. Baritone Raymond Aceto is a Wells Fargo man to be feared. Craig Verm, especially in this cast of huge voices, is a bit under-voiced for the role of Sonara.
The men’s chorus, a critical part of this opera, is drawn from the current crop of apprentices, so you will have to hunt far and wide to hear it sung any better. Their youth is also another advantage, given the frequently athletic staging. They deliver a barroom fight that is worthy of any bare-fisted Clint Eastwood movie.
Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are typical of many western movies that want to convey “cowboyness” but don’t want to suggest a specific time period for the action.
The orchestra plays Puccini’s complex score with verve under the sympathetic direction of conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the Principal Conductor of the Dallas Opera. This is a difficult score to conduct because of the thick orchestration and constantly occurring fortissimo, and louder, dynamic markings. Conductors have to walk a fine line between covering the singers and not offering them enough orchestral support. In this, Villaume is right on target—wisely letting the orchestra play out but keeping them just below the level of the singers.
Puccini is all about rubato. Even when in a set tempo, beats within even a single measure are frequently stretched to give the singers the freedom to add passion to a vocal line, not to mention hold a high note here or there. Villaume is right with the singers throughout, giving them the confidence to go with what might be working at the time, within reason, of course—knowing he would be there for them. Be that as it may, Villaume is definitely in charge of the music and he set a no-nonsense overall pace that keeps the excitement of the opera moving, from the opening notes to the “ride into the sunset” ending.
» More reviews from the 2016 Santa Fe Opera season: