With the Royal Opera in London only recently emerging blinking from lockdown, it feels as though Sir Antonio Pappano’s skills as a symphonic conductor have been the primary focus over the last months – not least given his recent appointment to succeed Simon Rattle at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. For a rare trip to the Staatsoper in Berlin, though, the focus was fully back on Pappano the theatre man.

Michael Volle (Jack Rance), Anja Kampe (Minnie), Stephan Rügamer (Nick)
© Martin Sigmund

The company’s first staging in front of an audience in over six months saw them present Puccini’s La fanciulla del West for the first time and they could barely have chosen a better advocate for the work than Pappano. Even in a reduced orchestration by Ettore Panizza – shorn of a little luxuriousness but not of dramatic punch – the conductor brought out all this glorious score’s passion and beauty, superbly conveying its ebb and flow between violence and tenderness, despair and gentle hope. The reduced Staatskapelle’s playing was superb, too. Pliant in the strings, imposing in the brass: it just made me look forward to hearing them, unreduced, perform the work in all its widescreen glory.

In La fanciulla, though, the role of the conductor is arguably more straightforward than that of the director, who has to find a convincing way of presenting, in our cynical, critical age, a piece that’s unfashionably big-hearted, built on the promise of love and redemption in the gritty, loveless environment of the Californian gold rush. And here, Lydia Steier arguably made life more difficult for herself by emphasising the latter at the expense of the former. “I tried to sharpen the edges and corners,” the American director says in an interview in the programme, citing David Lynch and Breaking Bad as influences.

Stephan Rügamer (Nick), Michael Volle (Jack Rance) and Ensemble
© Martin Sigmund

Her production updates the action to what could feasibly be any time in the last 50 years, albeit to a world without mobile phones. The tone is set during the overture as a man is brought in on the back of a pick-up and hanged in front of a young child, presented as observer of the whole evening. It’s one of several executions casually peppered throughout the show, carried out by Ashby (all nonchalant malevolence in Jan Martiník’s impressive performance) and his menacing gang.

There’s more than a hint of Vegas as Act 1 opens, a big showgirl sign to the right, “Dancing” in neon to the left, illuminated cowboys sauntering on looking for trouble (sets and costumes by David Zinn). For his nostalgic song, Jake Wallace (Grigory Shkarupa) descends from the flies like Elvis, joined on suspended hoops by a couple of spangly dancers. The Polka is a trailer serving trestle tables; a fluffy life-size buffalo stands pride of place, later revealed as an unlikely receptacle for the miners’ earnings. The miners themselves are never more than one dodgy glance away from a brawl; one struggles to believe in the soft centres behind the hardened exteriors – would this grizzly bunch really settle down meekly for a bible class with Minnie?

Grigory Shkarupa (Jake Wallace) and Ensemble
© Martin Sigmund

Minnie’s hut in Act 2, set into a black wall against which snowy squalls are projected, is a minuscule bedsit, with an incongruous suburban feel to it. The director sidesteps the awkwardness of Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit (Žilvinas Miškinis and Natalia Skrycka) by recasting them as barely coherent drug addicts, although it’s not quite clear what they – and the child – are doing in Minnie’s tiny flat. For Act 3 we see the Polka upturned and abandoned, with swirling red skies (video by Momme Hinrichs) and a full-out brawl, replete with pyrotechnics, adding to an apocalyptic atmosphere.

It’s not all convincing, but Steier wisely lets the work’s essential warmth shine through, not least in the final redemption and the superb duets between Minnie and Dick. As the latter, somewhat unsexily presented in suit and satchel, Marcelo Álvarez sings with wonderfully easy ardour. Anja Kampe is an appealing Minnie, although she lacks the power in her lower range, and is taxed in the role’s higher reaches – by no means the first soprano to struggle with Puccini’s demands in that regard.

Anja Kampe (Minnie), Marcelo Álvarez (Dick Johnson), Michael Volle (Jack Rance)
© Martin Sigmund

Michael Volle clearly has a whale of a time as Jack Rance, all barely concealed sadism, leather and cigarettes, and sings the role with relish. The rest of the big cast is superb, too, especially Stephan Rügamer’s Nick, in drag as the Polka’s landlady, and Łukasz Goliński as a moving Sonora. They, plus the excellent chorus, are all directed with a rare care and attention to detail in a real ensemble showcase.

With Pappano and the Staatskapelle providing such a fine musical foundation, it all adds, despite some reservations, to what it should: a moving and, in the circumstances, properly inspiring demonstration of the power of live opera.