Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Truly American (Italian) Opera

Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West
New York City Opera
Rose Theater
September 6, 2017

Nobody move! Minnie takes charge
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
Where has La Fanciulla del West been all my life? It was such an exciting and surprising discovery that I think it might be my favorite Puccini opera to date, especially in terms of plot. Whereas he can often be too cloyingly melodramatic, too saccharine for my taste in some of his more canonical verismo standards, La Fanciulla, once it gets going, tells the compelling story of an empowered woman risking life and limb to realize her dream of true love and marital bliss. I say “once it gets going” because like La Bohème, the first act of this proto-spaghetti western of an opera feels on first listen a bit bogged down by exposition.

The Polka Bar is the heart of the community of miners
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
Yet the first act is deceptively tight despite seeming relatively sprawling. The libretto covers a lot of ground. Structurally it sets up for everything that is to come. The men are are lonely. They swill their whiskey straight and are intolerant of anyone who drinks it any other way. But they are also suckers for mail from home and softies when it comes to a nurturing lesson from Scripture – though they are also given to stacking the deck against the dealer at the gambling table. All of the later plot points are all established in this early series of tableaux that follow one right after the other.

The men busy themselves with drink, cards, Bible lessons
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
A lot of this flow depends on the tempos coming out of the pit. James Meena conducted a well-paced rendition of the score. The multifaceted series of set pieces in the first act hurled right along. Everything clicked in terms of narrative rhythm.

The content-rich first act then gives way to the fast-paced, action-packed second and third acts. There are even hints of Tosca in the story: brutal law enforcement officer lusts after the leading lady who is also a prominent figure in her community, here she is the proprietor of the local watering hole, and has to compete for her attentions against an outlaw, sans the execution and suicide.

Minnie is beset by men from the beginning
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
New York City Opera’s multi-partner collaboration presents a simple, no frills, unfussy production. The staging did its job without distracting from culminating plot points, like the big scene where Minnie robs the sheriff of his prize by cheating at cards. The dramatic turn of events in that climactic moment was almost cinematic in terms of its creation of suspense. If the world of the miners and the Polka bar they haunt came to life only in part thanks to Ivan Stefanutti’s minimal but effective set designs, then the music coming out of the pit did more than pick up the slack.

Minnie scams the evil sheriff at poker
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
In addition to buoying the suspenseful dramatic twists and turns in the plot, the score also heightens some very emotionally moving moments, particularly the tenor’s redemption aria in the second act and Minnie’s plea for a reprieve for her beloved outlaw in the third.

But there were awkward moments as well. The opera is, after all, sung in Italian and it’s full of expressions that perhaps Puccini thought would convey an American flair (Ugh!, Hallo!, whisky, Urrah!) that end up sounding like a spaghetti western badly translated back into Italian. Nevertheless, a dynamic and charismatic all-male chorus did justice to their caricatures, all things considered.

Johnson says his prayers before execution
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
Jonathan Burton leant his manly and moving tenore spinto skills to the role of the outlaw in disguise, known variously as Johnson or Ramerrez. His Act II climactic mini-aria in which his proclamation of love for Minnie and his promise to change his lifestyle in accordance with that commitment was underwritten by Burton’s heartfelt vocal surge in emotion and conviction. When he kicked into the full-throated cry of a tenor emoting he bore it all, both heart and soul, so that there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his sentiments, despite his other duplicitous behavior.

Soprano Kristin Sampson played the barkeep, Minnie, as a real go-getter but with a soft side, not unlike the all-too-similar character played by Joan Crawford in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. She sang with an almost Wagnerian might and forcefulness. But she was also tender in the maternal moments she shares with her regular customers in their miner community, an all around dynamic character, played with tact by Sampson.

Tough as nails, Minnie longs for one thing only: true love
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
Minnie is a modern heroine for a brave new world. Such a compelling strong no-nonsense leading lady! Nothing like those wimpy suicidal creatures who usually inhabit the operatic stage, she is an enterprising, independent, strong yet gracious woman who is equally at ease when teaching Bible lessons in humane behavior to a bunch of illiterate miners, as she is fiercely defending their hard-earned gold, dolling up for her date and cheating at poker to save the man she loves – not to mention shootin’ ’em up, left and right. Poom! Poom! Nobody messes with Minnie!

True love in the making
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz
La Fanciulla del West is a tale of compassion and second chances – even a bandit can have a change of heart if he meets the right girl. And they can live happily ever after walking together into the sunset of the great American West. While conceived by an Italian, this opera embodies the quintessential American traits of optimism, happy endings and fierce individuality. When it’s all said and done, so unlike Puccini’s other verismo fare. Cheesy, maybe – but refreshing, moving and uplifting too. Again, so very American.

– Lei & Lui

Love is worth the gamble!

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