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January 22, 2014 6:02 pm
Wieland Wagner once said that if grandfather Richard had been alive in the modern era, he would have made his career in Hollywood – such was his sense of futuristic fantasy. Puccini’s fantasy was of more conventional hue but he, too, might have made it in Tinseltown. In La fanciulla del West he virtually invented Hollywood before it invented itself: here is a gold-rush location, a bare-knuckled scenario, a sentimental ending.
Puccini’s evocation of the Wild West comes across with unexpected authenticity in Opera North’s high-fidelity new staging, which makes Fanciulla seem a much stronger work than its chequered performance history would suggest. Most modern interpretations either swamp it in spectacle or opt for radical rehash (Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2009 Amsterdam version pitched it in contemporary Wall Street). Aletta Collins and her design team – Giles Cadle, Gabrielle Dalton, Andreas Fuchs and Andrzej Goulding – trust Puccini’s instincts and keep things simple.
The set is a realistic indoor-outdoor hybrid that creates atmosphere, delights the eye and concentrates the stage: there’s not a whiff of unnecessary fuss. The opening scenes, which Puccini littered with Bible-reading, card-playing and rabble-rousing, strike a deft balance between stillness and bustle: what often comes across as a bitty sprawl translates here into a single skein of interconnected vignettes, colourful, lyrical and true-to-life. The central act, set in Minnie’s mountainside cabin, has the tautness of a high-class spaghetti western, and the finale maintains tension to the very end.
The musical performance is outstanding. Richard Farnes demonstrates what Puccini conducting is all about – colour, pace, rubato and the knack of creating a line through the music’s profusion of melody. Farnes must also take credit for his ensemble’s strength in depth, showcased here in numerous small roles and fabulous orchestral playing.
Alwyn Mellor portrays Minnie as a doughty woman who tempers principle with pragmatism. There’s no mistaking who is boss when this Minnie is around, even when her heart is a-flutter, and Mellor hits her notes confidently and cleanly. Rafael Rojas’s tastefully sung Dick Johnson makes an outlaw of uncommon dignity, while Sheriff Jack Rance becomes another of Robert Hayward’s convincing rogues.
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