Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Not Just in Philadelphia

Roumain and Joseph’s We Shall Not Be Moved
New York Premiere
Apollo Theater
October 7, 2017

Opera Philadelphia's highly topical opera at the Apollo Theater in Harlem
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph enlisted the collaboration of a group of high school students, who participated in Art Sanctuary’s Hip H’opera public outreach program, to assemble a timely story about justice and inequality in Philadelphia. Picking up where Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me leaves off, We Shall Not Be Moved is a new “opera” commissioned and co-produced by the Apollo Theater, Opera Philadelphia and Hackney Empire that delves dramatically into the politics of living in certain bodies, especially black and brown, but also transgendered bodies.

John Little, John Blue, John Mack, Un/Sung, and John Henry
Photo credit: Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
We Shall Not Be Moved is the story of five dynamic teenagers who live in present day Philadelphia where they have recently begun attending a new high school because their previous one fell victim to the city’s 2013 budget cuts. True story. One morning while cutting school they have a run in that leads inadvertently to murder. Rather than stick around to face the consequences, they decide to runaway and form a “Family,” as they call themselves. They end up squatting in an abandoned row house on the West side of town.

The Family on the run and in search of a new home
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
It doesn’t take long for a hardworking Latina female police officer with a heart of gold, who dutifully works the beat in the neighborhood, to become aware of their presence. But they also attract the attention of another “family” who already lives in their new temporary home. They are the ghosts of the people, often referred as OGs (or “original gangsters”), who lost their lives in a tragic fire caused by a police raid on the block years prior.

The other "family" of Osage Ave in West Philly.
MOVE headquarters in the background
Our motley crew of young people on the run just happened to stumble upon one of the darker chapters in the city’s history. Back in the 1980s the block was ground zero for the MOVE organization that was cruelly treated with an all-too-familiar brand of lawlessness by local law enforcement. “No justice in Philadelphia, not just in Philadelphia,” goes the refrain in one of the more empowering musical numbers.

The 1985 blaze on Osage Avenue
Photo credit: Philly Mag
Matt Saunders’s set design consisted of half a dozen moving translucent panels shaped like the familiar facades of row houses, not unlike the ones that the police fire bombed in West Philly back in May 1985 when they went to rout the intransigent radical community of black liberation activists known as MOVE. The blaze destroyed 61 homes, displaced 250 residents, and took 11 casualties, including five children.

A melancholic Un/Sung against the row house set design
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Unbeknownst to the young gang of runaways, they have sought refuge in the home that now stands on the site of the former MOVE headquarters. The site is still inhabited by the ghosts of the OGs who died there some 32 years prior. Rather than haunting the new inhabitants, the ghosts inspire them with cryptic words of wisdom.

John Blue and crew on the lam
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
When the policewoman decides to make a house call on the crew knowing they should probably be in school, she quickly finds herself in over her head and on her own. In the heat of the moment, she overreacts and mistakenly fires her gun, leaving one of the youths gravely wounded. The accident represents both another instance of senseless police brutally and a cosmic coincidence of sorts. The victim of the murder that sent the Family into hiding in the first place just happens to be the cop’s younger brother. The course of events also represents the kind of messy retribution through questionable divine intervention familiar from the greatest of Greek tragedies. But the equation isn’t so simple. The officer is not in only shock from her unintended action, but she is also outnumbered. The rest of Family assails her. They take her gun and use it to take her hostage.

In the opening of Act II, John Henry, sung by street-smart bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, lays bleeding in a pool of his own blood. Projections by Jorge Cousineau enlivened the sets of these inner city American streets with a variety of video and animation approaches, including the stunning effects he employs to give Henry an out-of-body experience. The scene opens a musical window into his soul, during which time he sings an “aria” of sorts, rap ballad-style. He stands up and spits his rhymes, while a projected image of his body remains on the ground. It was one of the moments in the show when time literally stood still and it was pretty powerful.

The tempos and volumes increase in the midst of John Henry’s near death experience. “Black body gone too soon,” the chorus of onlookers intones. The most intense, panic-filled music of the evening punctuated this moment in the drama for the rest of the crew, yet John Henry’s soul exuded a certain peace. “Lay me down,” he croons.

John Henry struggles through a near death experience
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Roumain’s score sets Joseph’s libretto aflame with a variety of musical genres and singing styles. Hip-hop, R&B, classic soul, funk, and slam poetry collide with baroque, classical and Broadway-style musical theater modes of storytelling in what is being billed as a new “opera.” Calling this piece an opera is a generous appellation, but it is also cause to rejoice if the term is capacious enough to encapsulate such an eclectic hybrid.    

Roumain, whose score pulls some seriously dirty funk bow work out of a small string section, expands the range of operatic language to include electronic synthesizers, a drum kit, electric guitar and bass. The use of amplification and microphones for the singers is perhaps the greatest departure for an opera setting. Nevertheless, a palpable street energy exudes from the pit with passages of breakdance syncopation, foot-stomping tribal beats, and pop-music structures, featuring refrains, rife with da capo repetitions, remix-style.

The classic operatic practice of relegating dialogue to recitatives gets swapped out for a sort of narration delivered by Un/Sung, a spoken word artist with a spirit that electrifies. In the midst of all of these contemporary musical idioms, the texture of the score also occasionally breaks into opera.

Officer Glenda is taken hostage after the fatal shot is fired
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
One of the particularly inventive crossover concepts was the repeated use of countertenor John Holiday as the kind of soulful falsetto often heard singing backup vocals on a rap ballad, harmonizing with the beat before breaking out into some kind of a solo that adds flourishes of color to a track. Having made his name as a god of the Baroque countertenor/castrato repertory, Holiday has a voice that is clean and pure. He had some of the most striking musical numbers of the evening, lending his angelic instrument to Michael Jackson-style soulful falsetto lines that were less operatic than R&B.

John Blue searches for answers to pervasive body questions
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Holiday played John Blue, a transgender man whose frustrations over the trials and tribulations of his racial identity are further burdened by the fluidity of gender he has lived with all his life. Assigned a woman at birth, he longs to change the body he was given. As in the long tradition of operatic gender bending, Holiday is a male singer in the role of a woman who identifies as a man. In one of the projections we see him in the body wrap he wears to mask his femininity. “Blackbird sing, blackbird fly.” So the opera takes on an even broader array of questions about bodies than even Coates allowed for in his influential book. John Blue’s moving plight dramatizes what you get when you find race and the gender predicaments all rolled up in the struggle of one courageous individual.

The texture of vocal writing for Glenda, the Latina policewoman, was slightly different. Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez sang the soulful Latin-flavored role with a bluesy gusto. She gave her portrayal something of the female strength and conviction one finds in the exotic rhythms of Bizet’s Carmen, which we have also heard Chávez sing.  

A police officer with a heart of gold
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Glenda stands her ground as a dedicated law enforcement officer who is dead set on social respectability in her aspirations toward old-fashioned social mobility. Unfortunately, I found the musical writing for more purely operatic voices like hers to be the weakest. Nevertheless, the libretto goes to great lengths to humanize even the cops. Despite its overall diagnosis of systemic social injustice for people born into certain bodies, the police officer is given a dignified portrayal. The opera demands that we understand that officers of the law are just people too. Like all people, they have feelings and families and backstories and dreams of their own. Like all people they can make mistakes too. It’s only human, regardless of race, gender, gender, sexual orientation.

After John Henry’s victim-of-police-violence subplot runs its course, the ongoing narration of Officer Glenda’s story brings the opera to its true emotional and dramatic climax. Tied to a chair and held at gunpoint, she remains their hostage. The youngsters have to decide how they are going to handle their hostage situation. “Where is the fire gonna start again?” they ask rhetorically. “Here is where the fire is gonna start again.” The opera is punctuated by a series of almost infuriating moments that rouse a sense of indignation at the injustice of the world, stirs up anger, kindles frustration. It generated enough tension to keep me on the edge of my seat right up to the end.  

Un/Sung speaks her mind: "God bless my brothers and me"
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Un/Sung lectures her prisoner on the ways of the world. “The one holding the gun / determines the future of everyone,” she tauntingly rhymes. Though it sounds like a trite commonplace, her point packs a punch. She knows that power lies on the side of those who have a monopoly on violence – it’s political philosophy straight out of the pages of Carl Schmitt.

Their exchange leads to an incredibly human scene in which they finally recognize how much they actually have in common. “Just trying to stay alive,” raps Un/Sung. “So am I,” retorts Glenda humbly. To which Un/Sung responds, having broken away from her spoken word delivery style, now singing like songbird in full cry: “God bless my brothers and me!”

The action climaxes. Ghosts of OGs look on.
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Her voice drops to graver tones, as she lifts the gun towards Glenda’s head to finally introduce herself by her birth name: “My name is Alicia. But you can call me Un/Sung!” She is at point blank range. The tension between them has reached fever pitch. Just as the gun is about to go pop, the lights flip dramatically to black. My heart jumped in my chest. The whole thing left me tingling.

“What is freedom?” the WRBG radio broadcaster muses at one point in the voice over that is featured at intervals over the course of the opera. “Swimming in the creek behind the house as a kid. Dancing. Listening to music,” are among the answers. We suddenly realize that the whole debacle has been recounted in flashback from the perspective of the police officer, who walked away from the whole affair alive.  

The ghosts in the box: A housing block rich with history
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
The suggestion is that after the lights go out, a secret pact is made. They agree to let house burn. But did the kids burn in it? That’s the official story. But apparently, they got away and the police officer lives to tell the story and it’s a hot lead on the radio. “Cop tells all, live on WRBG.”

The aftermath of the blaze on a more ideological Osage Avenue
Photo credit: Philly Mag
“Was the Family motivated by big ideas, ideologies? Robespierre, the desire to live outside society, to establish some kind of external rule?” inquires the radio host. Speculation is made that these kids may have been inspired by the memory of the MOVE organization from the 1970s and 80s. Which, aside from their incidental supernatural contact with the ghostlike residue of the movement, obviously wasn’t the case. But the DJ’s inclination to make such a connection and credit them for revolutionary sophistication is a commentary in and of itself on how we come to understand the accidents of history.

Law enforcement cleans up after their own lawless catastrophe
Photo credit: Philly Mag
Though by no means a perfect experiment in contemporary opera, We Shall Not Be Moved provides ample fodder for reflection on a variety of questions related to race, gender, police violence, and social justice that are topical everywhere you look in our culture today. It was both stimulating on a human level and emotionally gripping. I found myself provoked, moved and profoundly frustrated. An evening at the theater is rarely able to achieve as much.

Lui & Lei

Daniel Bernard Roumain (composer), Bill T. Jones (director)
and Marc Balmuthi Joseph (librettist)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Shipwreck of the Fighting Spirit

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel
Opening Night U.S. Premiere
Metropolitan Opera
October 26, 2017

The shock of the shipwrecked souls
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Opening night of The Exterminating Angel attracted a younger, more stylish audience than your average evening at the Metropolitan Opera. It was out of the ordinary for other reasons as well. Rather than the usual gentle five-minute warning chimes one is accustomed to hear, as early as seven to ten minutes before start time the loud clanging of more forceful church bells rang not only in the front of the house, but they were still ringing once you took your seat right up to curtain.

They were Luis Buñuel’s signature bells, the ones that punctuate the movie of the same name on which the opera is based. Like good little conformist lambs on our way to church, they herded us in and I noticed that nearly everybody heeded the call more responsively than usual. There was much less dilly-dallying at the bar on the Grand Tier than one would normally see. With as long as five minutes to curtain, very few of us lingered in disbelief in the front of the house wondering what had come over the nearly sold-out crowd. It was just one of the surreal signs that this was not going to be your typical night at the Met.

Like Buñuel's sheep, the public heeds the call of the bells
Photo credit: Criterion Collection film still
The last few years has seen a slew of operas adapted from movies: Breaking the Waves, Brokeback Mountain (which was based on a short story), Cold Mountain (which was adapted from a novel that was in turn inspired by Homer’s Odyssey) just to name a few of the more prominent examples. Now the great Thomas Adès has brought us The Exterminating Angel and to great fanfare at that.

On the whole I found it an extremely stimulating experience. Because it is a movie that I have held dear over all the many years that I have pondered its complexity of meaning and its understated absurdist style, I couldn’t help but think long and hard about the decisions the composer and his collaborator Tom Cairns made in order to bring the film to the operatic stage. On the surface of things it would seem that this adaptation is all too slavish to the original script, but that is not true throughout.

Sputnik chandeliers rise and fall as the guests enter twice
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
In the movie the entourage enters twice, as though the record skipped or an additional take was added to the final cut of the film by accident. Then the host gives the same toast twice once they sit down to dinner. The first toast is warmly received and the guests are attentive. The second toast is completely ignored by the guests who are immersed in their own inane conversations and the host feels slighted. That’s when things start to go downhill. The waiter drops a tray of hors d’oeuvres. One of the guests sits down at the piano and plays a sonata by a fictitious composer named Paradisi and they begin to realize that none of them have the desire to leave anymore. Only once they repeat the scene at the piano will they, days later, be able to break this horrid spell. So the movie is structured around a series of repetitions, and another repetition is the only way out.

The charms of civility, while they last
Photo credit: Criterion Collection film still
Adès’s opera repeats the first and last of these ominous repetitions. The house lights remain on and the Met’s signature Sputnik chandeliers remain lowered during the initial scene, in which the awkward mass exodus of most of the wait staff occurs and the entourage of elite guests enter twice. The house lights dim and the chandeliers above the audience also raise a second time. This was so disorienting that the elderly women sitting behind and beside me all erupted into discombobulated whispers of disarray: “Did they make a mistake?” “What happened?” “Was that in the score or was there a technical error?” I’ve never heard so much live commentary from the crowd that usually shushes anyone who makes a peep, opens a candy or coughs during a performance.

Spin off conversations create a chaotic mess in the score
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Adès’s orchestration is largely atmospheric. It only lends something to the characterization of the various personalities stuck in the house at intervals, and hardly at all in the first act. When it comes to the whacked out sound effects that heighten the sense of chaos, Adès has definitely got it down. However, I can’t help but think that his skill in this regard would be even more effectively deployed if he did so more sparingly, particularly in the initial movements of the opera. If he turned to a whacked out and chaotic soundscape in a more directed way it could be put more expressive ends as opposed to using it as the baseline from which everything else departs.

The mystery of the film lies in part in the gradual (then sudden) deterioration of this group of society’s elite and their genteel haute bourgeois ways. They need to be depicted as refined before they get totally kooky. If they are a bunch of crazies from the get-go then they really don’t have very far to fall.

Leonora fawns over her adored doctor
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote brought a nutty co-dependency to her portrayal of Leonora Palma, who is lustfully absorbed in the salvific presence of her doctor, Carlos Conde, sung by bass Sir John Tomlinson. Doctor Conde’s lines were composed to be delivered almost always in an overly belabored fashion, all… drawn… out… slow.... In the movie the doctor is the grounding voice of reason, who more often than not serves to console and calm the group when they get worked up.

Here Doctor Carlos Conde has been reduced to a slightly loony bon vivant who is given to repeating the same joke, very slowly, as if that would put us off the scent. His recurring joke is one that conflates death and baldness in some kind of metonymy. It must be because when the body decays all that is left is a bald skeleton, no skin, no hair. But that’s not what happens immediately. It was made twice by the doctor, both times musically emphasized, neither of them particularly funny. Nor was this nonsense even present in the original.

The doctor is reduced to a man possessed
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Then the joke about the first man to take off his tuxedo jacket being from the United States was completely buried in the music and the delivery was burdened in a different way. The libretto awkwardly adds the remark that “they have different customs there,” which renders wordy what would otherwise be the punch line, especially played to an audience in America. But instead the score muddles it into near incomprehension. Another missed opportunity.

Which makes me think (time and again) that we are dealing with yet another composer who struggles not only with comic timing but with a sense of humor in music at all. And that is saying a lot. Remember this is the man whose youthful Powder Her Face featured an “aria” for soprano and chamber orchestra that simulated the singer performing fellatio. So that simply cannot be the case.

Lucía de Nobile holds forth on her practical jokes
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Soprano Amanda Echalaz as Lucía de Nobile, the hostess with the mostest for the evening, cast one of the first spells over the dinner party. In the “Ragoût Aria” she sings during her first course prank, the musical accompaniment is that of an unsettling deconstructed waltz, in the manner of Ravel’s La Valse. A variety of waltz rhythms pop up over the course of the opera, which the composer calls the quintessential “invitation to stay” music. A waltz entices the listener not to leave the party, but to stay, to dance another tune, to take another turn on the dance floor. And so what better music to include in a piece that is literally about the impossibility of leaving.

One of the staging decisions that I found disappointing was the flash of lightning that strikes the rear of the stage upon one of their early attempts to leave the salon, as though some external force is compelling them to stay. It’s more effective and mysterious if the conceit is subtle and remains on the psychological level. Heightening the mystery simply with the eerie sound of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, would have been more than enough to create the effect and get the idea across.

The guests freshen up after their first night together
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Another detail that confused all of the older women in my section was the addition of a bathroom. The closet seemed to contain not only a mirror but a sink and maybe even a toilet. It was unclear why this kind of realism was necessary when the guests go off to “freshen up” after their first night together. My section erupted in whispers when Julio and Raúl work to burst a water main in the floor in the beginning of Act III. “Wasn’t there a bathroom behind that one door before,” the women around me snickered.

The men manage to burst a water main
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Having revisited the movie before attending the opera, I was expecting the opera to take advantage of the wonderful conversational style of the film. The group is constantly broken up into little groups making small talk and saying crazy, symbolic, non-sequitur and important things. It seems like all this would be amazing fodder for a feast of duets and trios and quartets that explore a variety of emotions and ideas and social commentary and symbolism and subtlety (which is not necessarily what opera is known for unless it is emotional – those broad broad strokes of emotion that the greatest operas give us).

Mise en abyme: the self-involved lovers lock themselves in a closet
Photo credit: Clive Barda
Some of the strongest moments in the opera fall into this category, but only in the last third of the show, namely the hallucinations and the love scene in the closet. “Bouquets of lust, I’ll make from your veins,” sang soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor David Portillo as the two star-crossed lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, who in the movie are to be married in a matter of days. Their big time-stopping love duet in the closet featured a brilliant musical conceit. It is driven by a fugue structure. Her voice chases his until they consume each other. Their two lines become one, musically, vocally, sensuously. It is one of the most transcendent moments in the opera.

At first she is like the nymph Echo repeating the words of her beloved Narcissus; only this Echo gets what she wants, along with the dissolution and death she earns in the myth. Narcissus is also a fitting reference for Eduardo (if not most of the rest of the shipwrecked souls in the mansion). So taken is he with himself and his lover that they want to sink farther from the world into their own solipsistic solitude rather than escape back out into the public sphere that most of the party seems to be all too eager to avoid.

Some of the women turn to black magic and sorcery
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
The hallucinations segment of the final act of the opera is full of surprises and it is the moment when the score settles down musically. One of the guests has a dream vision of an almost demonic insect looking dancer. She writhes as though possessed to the sound of a frenetic Spanish guitar. The projected image of an amputated hand makes its way hauntingly across the stage and Señor Alberto Roc levitates in a very dreamlike way across the stage to make some kind of sexual advance on a sleeping Leticia.

How low will they go?
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
In fact, the descent is deeper here. The party sinks even further into disarray than they do in the movie. So much so that the dashing baritone Rod Gilfry ends up in his skivvies relatively early on. And somehow everybody gets visibly soiled in ways that aren’t apparent in the black and white film. We actually see them eat the sacrificial lamb, whereas in the movie they only set about prepping it for slaughter.

At this point, soprano Sally Matthews, in the role of Silvia de Ávila, enters into her own headspace and sings an utterly moving ode to her son. Whether she too is hallucinating or has just lost it all together is unclear. But in any case she cradles the severed head of one of the lambs in her arms as if it were her beloved son, whom we actually see in the crowd scene at about this time. Outside on the street he is goaded to attempt to breach the home in which his mother is held captive. The music on the outside crackles with a different kind of chaos punctuated by the lively sound of castanets.

Silvia cradles a carcass while she pines for her son
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Two of the men in the movie are initiates in the Free Masons. After having identified each other early in the film, they later attempt to use one of the secret mantras to tame the dangerous bear that prowls just beyond the threshold of their prison. The opera drops the Masonic material, and instead adds a more enigmatic Jewish messianic subtext. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the nature of its Zionist references. In the early depths of their collective despair, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, in the role of the chanteuse Blanca Delgado, wistfully croons a version of an old Ladino Jewish folk tune, “Over the sea, show me the way home….” Hers is a melancholic moment, a longing for a time now lost.

A ferocious bear lurks just across the threshold
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Soprano Audrey Luna played the role of Leticia Maynar, the guest of honor of the evening since she is the one who sang Lucia di Lammermoor that very night prior to their little post-opera reception. Ironically the star singer of the characters is the one who has the most trouble articulating. Her vocal lines are all written excruciatingly high in awkwardly staccato rhythms so that she kind of hiccups them out, when she isn’t shrill and screeching and sounding like a ditzy dunce.

Leticia goes into a mystic trance
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
Letiticia is the one who has the illumination to reenact the earlier recital portion of their first evening together, before they realized they were stuck. In the context of the opera, it seems to be suggested that only by the power of music are they able to break the spell. And then once they leave the premises, she is the one who sings a sort of apocalyptic hymn of sorts, the setting of an early twelfth-century text by Yehudah Halevi. After invoking Zion, she sings, “Save me from eternal death, shine eternal light” or something to that effect.

The guests finally stagger out of captivity
Photo credit: Ken Howard
They are greeted by the crowds on the street dressed in stylish, brightly colored 1960s street clothes, who have been waiting for the elite coterie to re-emerge from the house. The respective crowds mingle and mix to much rejoicing, but the celebration does not last long.

They are greeted by the crowds on the street
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
It is then Leticia again who cuts the zombie-like festivities short and proceeds to herd them all back across the threshold of another building, into the ark of safety and salvation of which she ominously sings, while they attempt to avoid the military police on the street. “Save me from eternal death, shine eternal light,” she drones on. In Buñuel’s vision, both the elite parlor, in the beginning, and the nave of the church, in the end, are havens of disengagement from the political world.

Leticia herds them back into the ark of salvation with her apocalyptic hymn
Photo credit: Monika Rittershaus
As in the movie, church bells – the same ones that beckoned us into the theater in the beginning – resound again all around us, only this time the elite and the proletariat retreat together from the public sphere with Leticia as their rather spooked pastor. And then what? We are perhaps to understand that a unique cocktail of fear and complacency has gotten the best of them all, from the upper echelon to the lower. A slightly more inclusive group attempts to save themselves by withdrawing from the ravages of public life, and in the meantime the wild world outside goes to pot.

As expected, Adès gave us a lot to think about and a very tough pill to swallow, if this is indeed what he is after. But I would see it again in a heartbeat.

– Lui

Dinner is served
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Preparation for the slaughter
Photo credit: Criterion Collection

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!