Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West

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 PellÈas. 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
BohËme, 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

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

image_description=Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson [Photo by Fritz Curzon]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La fanciulla del West
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson

Photos by Fritz Curzon