Despite having enjoyed outings for Opera Holland Park and English National Opera in 2014, La fanciulla del West remains one of Puccini’s less frequently performed operas: according to Rodney Milnes, there is a ‘chicken-and-egg’ explanation for this. Although its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 prompted over fifty curtain calls, the fact that it demands seventeen soloists as well as three substantial sets means that an opera house cannot take it on with the same ease as Tosca or La bohème. As a result, over time it became performed less regularly, which generated the idea that it was not as good as Puccini’s other operas, which led it to being staged even less.
It is not necessary to agree with Milnes that Puccini ‘composed nothing better’ to accept that La fanciulla is a vastly underrated work in which there is clearly more to discover. For this reason, Grange Park Opera is to be praised for its ambition in reviving the opera, having originally staged it in 2008. If not as much new light is shed on the piece as might have been hoped for, everything is presented so coherently and effectively that the resulting production, originally directed by Stephen Medcalf and revived here by Peter Relton, feels highly rounded and atmospheric.
The small size of the venue is certainly no hindrance to an effective staging, and may even be an advantage. In Francis O’Connor’s sets, the long bar of the Polka features row after row of bottles, and through the exploitation of ‘diminishing perspective’ appears to continue for miles. In Act I, when there is so much cutting from one scenario to another, the relatively small stage is a positive in helping us to keep tabs on everything, and to invest an emotional interest in each minor character. David Plater’s lighting is also used to good effect so that alterations emphasise the change in mood from, for example, the sad departure of Larkens one minute to the resumption of a card game the next.
The side and back walls of the performance area depict a rough wooden framework that could represent the perimeters of the camp in Act I, or allude to the forest terrain thereafter. Minnie’s cabin in Act II feels suitably humble yet homely, and its ‘cutaway’ design serves many purposes beyond the obvious one of enabling us to see inside. It allows the roof area to be shown without creating too heavy a set, and it helps us to feel the cold as we see the falling snow beyond. At the end of this scene when the defeated Rance exits one way, the entire hut with Johnson in it slides off the other to leave Minnie standing alone. This emphasises the point that the triumph of the poker game is ultimately Minnie’s in that she for once has got what she wants. This also ensures a smooth transition to Act III, there being no interval here, as we are taken directly to the place of the final ‘showdown’. This is complete with railway tracks, and at the end features a sunset for Minnie and Johnson to walk off into.
The three central performances are very strong. As Minnie, Claire Rutter captures every facet of a character who has been described as ‘part barmaid, part schoolmarm, part Valkyrie, and earth-mother to all’, with singing of strength and anguish on the one hand and precision and sensitivity on the other. Both Lorenzo Decaro as Johnson and Stephen Gadd as Rance reveal excellent tone in their respective tenor and baritone registers, while from among the plethora of excellent supporting performances Jihoon Kim as Ashby stands out. Stephen Barlow’s stirring conducting cuts to the heart of the passion and drama inherent in the music. When we hear in the decisive poker game the pizzicato double bass, highlighting the tension as well as the stakes, and then, just a few minutes later, Minnie’s cry of triumph in a marvellously overwhelming passage, we are reminded of the brilliance of Puccini who in the short intervening period has taken us from one extreme state to the other in the most surprising manner.