There was a time when you were lucky to catch Puccini’s La fanciulla del West once in a generation. Now everybody wants to do it: in the UK, Opera North, Opera Holland Park and English National Opera all have Fanciulla scheduled over a 12-month period, suggesting that Puccini’s girl of the golden West has at last found the popularity she always deserved.
Holland Park’s production opens unpromisingly. The action has been updated to the 1950s and before the music starts a company of US soldiers run on to hold a nuclear test over the Nevada desert – a silly idea, presumably thought necessary to explain why there are hardly any women on stage (Puccini originally set his opera among a high-testosterone band of gold prospectors in California).
Once it is over this conceit, Stephen Barlow’s production happily progresses more or less as normal. Some details jar in the updated setting, but it is amusing to see Minnie as manager of the “Golden Nugget” gambling hall and a snigger went round the audience when she offered the soldiers a packet of Oreos (the first product placement at the opera?). This Fanciulla, though, does not work as well as Holland Park’s last engagement with the opera in 2004, when it was played straight.
Nor is the cast as strong. Holding “Camp Desert Rock” together is the strong Minnie of Susannah Glanville, whose gleaming soprano cuts confidently through the orchestra; and she looks the part to perfection in a flame-red cowboy suit. Jeff Gwaltney has an attractive, soft-grained tenor voice, but not the decibels that the role of Dick Johnson needs, especially at this semi-open-air theatre, and Simon Thorpe makes a less than fearsome Jack Rance. Among the many smaller roles Laura Woods’s Wowkle and Graeme Broadbent’s impressively-sung Ashby stand out.
The conductor, Stuart Stratford, does what he can to help the singers by keeping the City of London Sinfonia down, but he really needs to get a move on. Too much affectionate lingering can kill Puccini’s operas. At the end, when Minnie and Dick Johnson depart for a better life, this production has them boarding a TWA plane bound for who-knows-where – a delightful touch that almost reconciles one to the evening as a whole.