Saturday, August 6, 2016

Santa Fe Opera Opens 60th Season: La Fanciulla del West

Opening scene of Fanciulla del West at the Polka saloon

Santa Fe Opera
The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera celebrated its 60th anniversary season without the hoopla the round number might imply. The company shored up gaps in its roster with works neglected in the past, a treasure hunt that uncovered some real gems and a couple others worthy of at least occasional release from obscurity. All five productions will be considered in this and subsequent reviews. The opener, opera’s original spaghetti western, is an intriguing if flawed rarity on today's stages.

La Fanciulla del West enjoyed a spectacular 1910 debut at the Metropolitan Opera and made a lot of money for composer Giacomo Puccini, who considered it his best work for the stage. Santa Fe had produced it only twice, in 1991 and 1995, before reviving it in this year’s co-production with the English National Opera, where this run was produced first.

With its backdrop in California’s Gold Rush days, the story (an adaptation of theatrical producer David Belasco's eponymous play from a century ago) has self-reliant tomboy Minnie, beloved of the miners, redeeming good-hearted outlaw Dick Johnson, while warding off the amatory advances of tough-guy sheriff Jack Rance. It's fun, but the work’s momentum is weighed down with a large cast of eighteen and a tad too much in the way of distracting local-color. It lacks the taut sweep of Puccini’s best work, and its reputation as a curiosity is not redeemed in a production that takes its laconic time building dramatic steam, while missing opportunities in both staging and casting. 

The action’s wide-open Western setting is tailor-made for Santa Fe’s Crosby Theatre stage, open (unless blocked) in its backstage area to New Mexico’s plains and mountains. But the sets here hid the natural landscape of America’s actual Golden West. The opening scene’s Polka Saloon had the anachronistic look of a mid-century Route 66 pit stop, located somewhere between Barstow and Las Vegas. Into its limited space were crammed a large cast and so many supernumerary miners one could barely discern individual action. Designer Miriam Buether’s saloon is complemented by Minnie’s dollhouse log cabin, in whose claustrophobic space Johnson and Rance had to navigate without bumping heads on the ceiling or knocking over the furniture. 

Jones (Johnson-Ramirez) and Racette (Minnie)
Soprano Patricia Racette’s game Minnie was energetic and empathetic, but she hardly had room in the crowd scenes to reveal her character’s full potential. Mark Delevan’s Jack Rance, dressed in bad-guy black, fully exploited his swagger and barking baritone as the smitten sheriff. Hero Dick Johnson (burly, blond-whiskered tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones) is supposed to be a Zorro-like Mexican bandit named Ramerrez whose family lost their lands to the rapacious gringos, but he looked here more like a beefy Jeremiah Johnson. With such a rich New Mexico history of Euro-American and Latino cultures existing side-by-side, the production inexplicably passed over its gold-plated opportunity, unique in this opera, to play off the dual American identities of its male lead.

And then there were those cigar-store Indian cameos Wowkie (Kristen Choi) and Billy Jackrabbit (James Harrington), whose cartoon pow-wow behaviors made more than a few in the audience squirm.

Racette, Jones and cast in final crowd scene
Fanciulla advances its penny-novel plot with a ten-gallon score. It is one of Puccini’s most ambitious, employing the Wagnerian technique of continuous thematic development, an earnest advancement in the composer's use of the orchestra. No question that Puccini stretched his creative powers in its music, if not quite  convincingly enough for the work’s would-be setting. Colorful touches included Western minstrel music (sweetly produced by Nicholas Davis) and Stephen Foster tunes. Yet the score’s pentatonic melodies and musical idiom, so characteristic of Puccini’s work, suggest more a way station between Madame Butterfly and Turandot than the American West. Only those brief cameos of the Native Americans in Minnie’s cabin would seem to fit the score's sound-world.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume’s musical action lumbered in the first act, but later on produced more than a few glowing sonorities.


Performance reviewed: August 2, 2016. Photos by Ken Howard

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