Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: James Meena
Director: Ivan Stefanutti
Kristin Sampson: Minnie
Jonathan Burton: Dick Johnson
Kevin Short: Jack Pance
Alexander Birch Elliott: Sonora
Michael Boley: Nick
Christopher Job: Ashby
Kenneth Overton: Jake Wallace
After a fabulous Sibelius-inspired concert gloriously kicked off my concert season on Monday evening, I was more than ready for La fanciulla del West, presented by the New York City Opera, in collaboration with the Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari and Opera Carolina, to kick off my opera season, and incidentally wrap up a short but hectic week, on Friday evening.
Not as perennially popular as some of Puccini's other works, the alleged "original spaghetti western" picked my curiosity because this time not only is the heroine independent-minded, but she's got a gun, knows how to use it, unhesitantly cheats at a card game to get the guy, and literally rides off into the sunset with him in a Hollywood-worthy happy ending. That sure beats dying of tuberculosis in a freezing garret, cutting one’s throat with a harakiri knife because of a worthless cad, or jumping off the top of Castel Sant'Angelo because there’s simply no way out.
Dismissed as a sweet but minor work by some and hailed as an unfairly neglected masterpiece by others, La fanciulla del West still more or less regularly pops up on opera stages around the globe. So I figured that the only thing to do was to go find out for myself, and at the same time support the valiant New York City Opera at the beginning of its second full season, with my friend Christine, who was also game for a light-hearted yet cultural start of the weekend.
Taking place in faraway California during the Gold Rush, which had to be a refreshingly novel setting at the time, La fanciulla del West also distinguishes itself for being the first world premiere ever presented at the Metropolitan Opera back in 1910, and a glittery one at that with Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso as the star-crossed lovers and Arturo Toscanini on the podium. The post-performance reception at the Vanderbilt’s was probably one of the hottest tickets in town as well. So who cared if the critics were not exactly raving?
Being the only girl in a man's world is a tough job, but from time to time somebody's got to do it, and while Minnie described herself as innocent and insignificant, she also appeared to be unconventionally well-read, self-sufficient and strong-willed. Portraying such a complex young woman can be no easy feat, but soprano Kristin Sampson readily rose to the task with a powerful and pliable voice that she knew how to amp up when reaching for the big emotional peaks and tamper down during the more intimate moments. She did not seem overly comfortable with a gun, but she had enough of a stage presence to make her Minnie an endearing character everyone on the stage and in the audience spontaneously rooted for.
Tenor Jonathan Burton was equally engaging as the outlaw Dick Johnson, even to the point where it was hard to imagine him as a hardened criminal. Maybe it was his sob story explaining his current circumstances, maybe it was his youthful smile and demeanor, maybe it was his going-for-broke singing that sounded straight from the heart, but seeing him through Minnie's loving and forgiving eyes quickly became a given. He had the one big aria of the evening, "Ch'ella mi creda", and did not miss his chance to nail it fair and square.
On the other hand, it was not hard to despise bass-baritone Kevin Short's self-assured sheriff and major boor Jack Pance, who nowadays would have been smacked with a sexual harassment suit in no time for his relentless pursuit of a clearly uninterested Minnie. Efficiently completing the de rigueur love triangle, he sang and acted his love-struck part with commitment and poise, even when dressed in a potentially confidence-crushing electric blue suit.
The rest of the cast defined their various characters skillfully and colorfully, with a special mention for baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, who deftly impersonated the combination of a good heart and a hot head that was Sonora. The all-male chorus seemed to be having a swell time walking around in their fancy cowboy outfits, and they were particularly good at expressing a genuine sense of camaraderie, even in the formulaic but fun bar brawl scene.
Speaking of clichés with an appealing twist, the sets were traditional in an understated way, but at least director Ivan Stefanutti did try to occasionally bring the rugged outside in with projections of nature landscapes on the background, which usually worked. The Western Sierras are no romantic Paris or exotic Japan, but the production made a laudable attempt at recreating the roughness of life in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere. As for the costumes, they went from mostly pleasantly serviceable to randomly downright dowdy, but that did not hugely matter at the end.
What mattered hugely though, is that the romantic mood, nuanced colors and attractive melodies of Puccini's openly ambitious score properly came out from the pit, and the reduced orchestra energetically conducted by James Meena made sure to make it happen. Fewer show-stopping arias and a more elaborate orchestration were in fact a nice change from the quintessential Italian melody master.
Therefore, the verdict is that while not an unquestionable masterpiece, La fanciulla del West deserves a decent spot in the opera canon, and the New York City Opera deserves high praise for having brought it to the New York City audience. All things considered, my opera season has started very well too. And now it is onward and forward!