La fanciulla del West
Santa Fe Opera opened its 60th season with Giacomo Puccini’s It’s no use pretending that Puccini’s histrionic horse opera is a better stage work than it is. Written to a libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civinini, who derived their text from David Belasco’s hit play The Girl of the Golden West, the opera premiered in 1910. For American viewers today, the comedic may easily overshadow the tragic in a tale of characters in the California Gold Rush who speak and sing in Italian (at least when they’re not shouting out “Hello!” which they do often) and rub shoulders with Native Americans who actually say “Ugh.” The opening night audience giggled a great deal, an honest response to an opera that jibes uneasily with modern mores.
The piece was strongly cast. Soprano Patricia Racette took on the role of Minnie for the first time in her career and did it proud, embracing the part’s vocal demands with security. She is less notable for vocal luxury or timbral shading than for her capacity to put across a text with dramatic certainty. Time and again her little soliloquies drew viewers into the realm of her deeply personal hopes and dreams.
Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones made a firm impression as Dick Johnson, the bandit who arrives intending to rob Minnie’s saloon but instead steals her heart. He has a more lyrical voice than many singers who take on this part, but he boasts an appealing, bright timbre and taut focus. Baritone Mark Delavan gave a vocally solid performance as Jack Rance, the predatory sheriff who wishes Minnie loved him instead of Dick Johnson.
One of strongest suits is its symphonic writing. It is a beautiful and intriguing score, marking an unlikely point where Debussyan delicacy makes a leap toward the hearty soundtracks of John Ford’s film Westerns. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume sometimes gave his players too free a rein, repeatedly threatening to swamp the singers.
If any opera invites opening the back of the Santa Fe Opera’s stage to the Jemez Mountains, it must be
our opera house is already in a glorious landscape of the American West. Instead, the piece unrolls on an entirely closed stage. It is unusual that scenic design is the weakest part of an opera production, but Miriam Buether’s sets diminish the piece. Minnie’s Polka saloon is a modest industrial hangar, or maybe a large carport, that might have been imagined by the architects at Tuff Shed.
Costumes, by Nicky Gillibrand, were all over the map, not underscoring any sense of period specificity. The stage direction seemed sometimes underdone. One wished, for example, that Minnie actually shot her pistol at her entrance rather than a bit after, that wounded Dick Johnson didn’t spend so much time just propped in the corner of her room oozing blood, and that there could be more pizzazz to Minnie and Dick heading off to their future while proclaiming “Addio, mia California!”
Additional performances of “La fanciulla del West” take place at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8, 13, 17, 23, and 27.