Puccini’s La fanciulla del West proves an inspired choice as the opener to Opera Holland Park’s 2014 season. The fact that it is less frequently performed than La bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly hands it a slight rarity value, but more importantly it has all of the ingredients to make for an evening of high drama. In exploiting these elements to the full Stephen Barlow’s new production proves both spirited and effective.
If one reason for the opera’s relative obscurity is its absence of arias with popular appeal, this is a shame because the possession of ‘catchy tunes’ is a crude way of judging a score’s effectiveness. Indeed, La fanciulla proves highly successful at taking us on an emotional journey by using the music to present a varied yet coherent experience, and the opera is certainly not lacking in drama. For example, at one point in the decisive poker game the only sound to be heard is that of pizzicato double bass, highlighting the tension as well as the stakes. Just a few minutes later, however, Minnie’s cry of triumph is accompanied by a brilliantly overwhelming passage, and in the short intervening period Puccini has taken us from one extreme state to the other in the most surprising manner.
Barlow’s production moves the action forward a century to 1951. The men are not seeking their fortune through gold, but are soldiers working on A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert. A voiceover at the start proudly boasts of the number of ‘giant mushrooms’ that have been created, equating the deadly weapon with power and modernity. The idea works to an extent because Minnie describes how the men are trying to get enough together to give their families back home a better life, and it feels that such a job could pay in line with this aspiration.
The approach does, however, sanitise the setting for Act I where the Polka Room is situated within the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. The men become local heroes with a sign proclaiming ‘Welcome Atomic Soldiers’, and the joint is also designed for tourists with half of the staff (including Minnie) dressed as Indians or cowgirls. In such a setting it does not seem plausible that when ‘Johnson’ first appears Rance would pull a gun on him as a standard reaction to encountering a stranger.
Act I, in fact, faces the greatest challenges precisely because it contains the opera’s most dynamic scene. The action can cut from one ‘scenario’ to another in a second, and with the whole of Holland Park’s long, shallow stage being utilised, it is sometimes difficult for the performance to maintain sharpness, and for the audience to keep focused on the important element at every moment.
Even here, however, the production succeeds in combining strong symbolism with straightforward illustrations of humanity. When Ramerrez tells Minnie he would like to say goodnight to her in her cabin, he suggestively places a gun in her holster, and after he tells her she has the face of an angel the act ends with her assuming the pose of one. Earlier in the scene, however, the pair’s dancing is far from perfect, which in turn brings out the very real, and human, emotions of embarrassment and endearment.
Act II fares much better as it allows us to concentrate on fewer characters, and predominantly takes place on one section of the stage. Minnie’s cabin is effectively portrayed with a few simple walls, which forces a greater proportion of the action to take place outside, thus bringing the harshness of the environment into focus. Ramerrez hides on, rather than in, the roof so that he is freezing as well as bleeding, and by the time Rance has got him down from there both he and Minnie have also braved the cold night.
Conductor Stuart Stratford proves highly adept at pacing the work to bring out the drama in the scenario and the beauty in the music, while the standout performance comes from Susannah Glanville who throws heart and soul into playing Minnie. As she bursts through a bar hatch to take the stage by storm, or renders ‘Dove eravamo?’ with exquisite delicacy, we witness a voice that is by turns full of warmth, power, beauty and tenderness.
As Ramerrez, Jeff Gwaltney’s lower register is sometimes a little underpowered, but he has the ability to apply a certain edge to his rich, smooth tenor voice to make it feel overwhelmingly impassioned. Simon Thorpe as Rance reveals a very strong baritone instrument. We can hardly ignore the fact that he is attempting to kill his enemy, but one can still feel some sympathy as Thorpe reveals how Rance’s actions derive from a genuine love for Minnie and a hatred of seeing her with someone whom, he believes, is so unworthy of her. Amidst the plethora of minor roles, Graeme Broadbent’s Ashby and Laura Woods’ Wowkle stand out.
Act III is perfectly judged as it occurs on a largely bare stage, and generates a clear dynamic that allows the power of both the men’s voices and Puccini’s score to come to the fore. There is a nice novelty touch at the end concerning the nature of Minnie and Ramerrez’s departure, but this is not as moving as the closing image of Rance blowing Minnie a farewell kiss. He may be bleeding inside, but this is a gesture of fondness and magnanimity that, after all he has done, ultimately leaves us feeling for him as a man who has been so very unlucky in love.