La Fanciulla del West
Opera Holland Park
Susannah Glanville as Minnie, with Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance, Nicholas Garrett as Sonora, Neal Cooper as Nick and Graeme Broadbent as Ashby in Opera Holland Park's staging of La Fanciulla del West
Photo by Fritz Curzon
Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson
Photo by Fritz Curzon
Opera Holland Park's season began on June 3 with a bang — and a big one. We were in the Nevada desert, where the brilliant light of an atomic test flared during the score's expansive opening phrase. A new staging of John Adams's Doctor Atomic, you might ask? No: Giacomo Puccini, of course. Stephen Barlow's production of La Fanciulla del West moved the story out of the era of David Belasco's forty-niners into that of the beginnings of Las Vegas as a major gambling centre and tourist resort. Act I took place in 1951 in the Polka Room of the Golden Nugget Casino, where soldiers from Camp Desert Rock comprised the bulk of the clearly welcome gamblers. Act II moved to a basic but shiny new cabin on Las Vegas Heights, where bar-owner Minnie (who dressed for work like Betty Hutton in the 1950 film version of Annie Get Your Gun) maintained her simple home.
The visuals, in Yannis Thavoris's designs, were amusing, though — as usual, if not always — the transfer from one locale to another left definite holes in the work's dramatic fabric. In the original, Dick Johnson's plan to steal the gold amassed by the desperate, struggling miners seems a good deal worse than his robbing a casino, however wicked or criminal that might be on its own terms. And would Minnie's special status as virtually the sole respectable woman in the area continue to hold true or, indeed, mean anything, in 1951? No, of course it wouldn't. Directors seem to be perpetually seduced into abandoning fundamentals of plot or motive in order to further clever design concepts. That was a pity in this instance, because Barlow's general ability to present action and interaction was extremely impressive; he positioned individuals and groups onstage with real artistry, and drew performances of insight and imagination from his three principals.
Of these, Susannah Glanville's Minnie may not have been entirely secure from a vocal point of view — some of her high notes took a moment to cement into steadiness — but she captured the bravery and naïveté of the saloon-bar owner even if, once again, it was hard to imagine the latter quality surviving intact more than a century subsequent to the opera's nominal period. Vocal warmth and humanity were the foundations, nevertheless, of a broadly credible portrayal.
As Ramerrez (aka Dick Johnson), American tenor Jeff Gwaltney sang with commitment and focus, his tenor sufficiently solid and substantial to create the impression of a credible young roughneck with a beating heart. As his rival and opponent, Tasmanian baritone Simon Thorpe radiated aggression, revealing a softer side in his winsome short aria, "Minnie, dalla mia casa," and throughout alternating the vulnerable with the beefy and the volatile in his singing, as well as in his acting.
Puccini and his librettists sketched in a lot of small roles that offer ample opportunities to shine for conscientious artists, and at this performance many of them were cleverly drawn. Leading a large field was Aidan Smith as the pathetic Larkens, who was doubly so on this occasion; following the gift of money from his colleagues to return to his beloved mother and his beloved Cornwall, he merely wandered back to the tables and the slot-machines to start gambling all over again.
Laura Woods and Tom Stoddart humanized Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit, the two Native Americans, demonstrating that they do not have to be presented as embarrassingly outdated stereotypes. To Simon Wilding fell the heartrendingly nostalgic song of the minstrel, Jake Wallace, and he did not disappoint in touching the audience's collective heart. Graeme Broadbent made something notably businesslike out of Wells Fargo agent Ashby.
A rejuvenated Holland Park chorus had a good night, as did the City of London Sinfonia in the pit. Conductor Stuart Stratford needed to keep up the momentum more in a score whose structures are unusually long-term for this composer, but few interpreters have a keener eye than he does for the rich and intricate detail in the orchestral scoring.
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