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Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson [Photo by Fritz Curzon]
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Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West

‘I like the atmosphere of the West’, Puccini wrote after seeing three of David Belasco’s plays performed on Broadway in 1907, ‘but in all the “pièces” I have seen, I have found only a few scenes here and there.

Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson

Photos by Fritz Curzon


Never a simple thread, all muddle, and, at times, bad taste and old hat.’ It was nevertheless there and then that the first dramatic seeds were sown for La fanciulla del West were sown; it would be written to a libretto after Belasco, dedicated to Queen Alexandra (!), and premiered in New York in 1910. Even after considerable compression, modification, and so forth, I am not convinced the work is a resounding triumph, though many Puccini lovers esteem it highly indeed. It is certainly full of musical interest: the Wagnerisms of old are perhaps not so prominent, though the love scene in the second act surely takes partly after Tristan , but the influence of Debussy in particular is fruitful indeed. Whole tone scales pervade the score, and there is more than the occasional nod to Pelléas. The story itself, the characters included, remains more of a problem. They are not the easiest people to care about, and without that, Puccini’s trademark emotional manipulations cannot do their work. He may have wished the opera to be a ‘second Bohème, only stronger, bolder, and more spacious,’ but that ambition would only fitfully be fulfilled. The sentimentality of the ‘redemptive’ ending is, alas, only too readily resisted.

Or so it seemed here, despite an excellent orchestral performance from the City of London Sinfonia under Stuart Stratford. The number of occasions when one really felt the lack of a larger orchestra was surprisingly small, the strings proving more luscious than one would have had any right to expect, the woodwind piquant and alluring, and the brass offering dramatical fatalism aplenty. Stratford’s direction seemed to me splendidly judged, those Debussyan resonances both readily apparent and seamless incorporated into the score. There is little that can be done about a rather annoying theme - friends tell me that it has been ‘borrowed’ by a composer of musical theatre, though it stands out like a sore thumb even before one is aware of that - but the score was certainly given its due. Stratford’s - and his cast’s - crewing up of musical tension during the second-act wager was beyond reproach.

photo-5.gif Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance

Susannah Glanville shone as Minnie; I had not encountered her before, but was mightily impressed by her vocal reserves and the dramatic use to which they were bit. This was a performance that would have graced many a ‘major’ stage, not that the ever-enterprising Opera Holland Park has any reason to fear such lazy comparisons. Jeff Gwaltney sometimes struggled to make himself heard - in particular, his words - but offered a sensitive portrayal of Dick Johnson. Simon Thorpe presented the conflicting emotions of Jack Rance with considerable skill, permitting one initially to sympathise, then to be repelled. A strong supporting cast included a highly impressive performance by Nicholas Garrett as Sonora. Choral singing was likewise greatly to be admired.

The problem, then, lay with Stephen Barlow’s production. This, at least it seems to me, is a vulnerable work, and the updating to a 1950s Nevada atomic testing ground makes little sense. A number of those who know the opera far better than I do say that it is a work that resists relocation in any sense. I am not so sure; I can imagine, for instance, a metatheatrical treatment in Hollywood, which played upon musical themes as well as the more obvious metaphor of gold-digging. The name ‘Camp Desert Rock’ seemed to promise something that remained un-delivered, but perhaps that should come as a relief. Barlow’s concept, however ably assisted by Yannis Thavoris’s designs, seems not to involve any real re-thinking; re-location jars and perplexes, rather than reinvigorates. Puccini’s ‘never a simple thread, all muddle, and, at times, bad taste and old hat’? That would be too harsh, but work and musical performance alike are done no favours by pointless, eye- but hardly ear-catching interpolations, of Minnie’s final act arrival upon a motorcycle and the lovers’ subsequent airline departure. It was difficult to resist the conclusion that the opera would have been better off left in Gold Rush California.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Minnie: Susannah Glanville; Dick Johnson: Jeff Gwaltney; Jack Rance: Simon Thorpe; Nick: Neal Cooper; Sonora: Nicholas Garrett; Trin: Jung Soo Yun; Sid: Peter Braithwaite; Bello: James Harrison; Harry: Oliver Brignall; Joe: Edward Hughes; Happy: John Lofthouse; Jim Larkens: Aidan Smith; Ashby: Graeme Broadbent; Wowkle: Laura Woods; Billy Jackrabbit: Tom Stoddart; Jake Wallace: Simon Wilding; Jose Castro: Henry Grant Kerswell; Pony Express Rider: Michael Bradley. Director: Stephen Barlow; Designs: Yannis Thavoris; Lighting: Richard Howell. Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Timothy Burke)/ City of London Sinfonia/Stuart Stratford (conductor). Holland Park. Tuesday 3 June 2014.

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