Vera Nemirova's production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West for the Deutsche Oper is a modern twist on the Gold Rush era romance, and a somewhat confusing one at that. Sell-sung and well-acted, it is nonetheless a bewildering take on Puccini's straightforward love story.

Starring Emily Magee as the worldly-wise yet innocent Minnie and Zoran Todorovich as the bandit-with-a-heart-of-gold Dick Johnson, this Fanciulla includes a pre-show performance in which the visitors to the opera supposedly board a ship to America. It would seem that we, as well as the young gents in '50s era suits and hats, were heading out to the Wild West to join in one of the great migrant movements in modern history. It's an interesting choice, considering that gold-mining in California died out well over one hundred years ago. It was also rather irritating, as foghorns boomed out over the patrons in the foyer and recorded announcements-in English advised “passangers” when to begin “boarding”. And indeed, the pre-show seemed to belong to another show entirely, as the music begins to scenes of miners coming home to the Container City that is the current trend for Fanciulla productions before going on to Minnie's off-kilter trailer park cabin (if you want to see the action in Act II, sit on the left in the audience).

John Lundgren (Jack Rance) and Emily Magee (Minnie) © Bettina Stöß
John Lundgren (Jack Rance) and Emily Magee (Minnie)
© Bettina Stöß

The problem with updating Fanciulla is that Puccini's opera, and David Belasco's play before it, is so firmly based in a near-mythical era as to make little real sense when updated. Minnie was the sole woman in a camp full of rough and tumble miners, yes, but there was no real sense of place to the setting. What would they be mining in the 1950s (the relative era of the update) that a team of bandits could make off with and why would Wells Fargo be involved? These are some of the unanswered questions in the Deutsche Oper production. But there were excellent moments too, as when Sonora busted through Minnie's wall to protect her from Johnson, and the hilariously awkward moment when Johnson and Minnie prepare for bed like two prudes in a roomful of nudists. Likewise, having Minnie and Rance use the unconscious Johnson as a card table was a nice touch, as was Magee popping out of the audience to save her lover. What they were trying to say by that was a mystery, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

However, a good cast can pull off almost anything, and this one rose to the occasion. Magee sang Minnie with a rough and ready twinkle. Hers is not a typical Puccini voice, but she was a convincing and endearing Minnie, though one a little too ready to pull a gun on people (as she did with everyone from Sonora to Billy Jackrabbit). She even managed to make Minnie and Johnson's weird little waltz, done here with blindfolds and knives, sweet instead of creepy. Todorovich sang with a heroic if slightly strained tenor, though he was not particularly convincing as the dashing bandito. But then, it is hard for any man to be taken seriously when wearing a white suit and pink ruffled shirt.

Emily Magee (Minnie) and Zoran Todorovich (Dick Johnson) © Bettina Stöß
Emily Magee (Minnie) and Zoran Todorovich (Dick Johnson)
© Bettina Stöß

John Lundgren gave a striking performance as Sheriff Jack Rance, portraying a man stuck in a rut who desperately wanted to leave his current life and run away with Minnie to begin again. Rance is a dangerous fellow, a little too quick to use violence to achieve his ends, but Lundgren played him with gravitas.

The miners themselves were played by the excellent ensemble at the Deutsche Oper, led by Seth Carico as Sonora, the miner whose love for Minnie is perhaps the purest of all the men in the opera, for it is Sonora alone who recognizes all that Minnie has done for the camp and lets her have Johnson with good grace. Carico played Sonora with a swaggering insouciance that didn't quite mask the fact that Sonora is the biggest softie of the bunch. Honorable mentions also go to Ronnita Miller for her stentorian Wowkle (Miller is wasted in the role; her voice big enough to be heard down the street and she brings enormous presence to the stage) and Clemens Bieber as Nick. Carlo Rizzi led the Orchester of the Deutsche Opera with enthusiasm.

In all, the Deutsche Oper's production of La fanciulla del West may not know entirely what it's doing with itself, but it tells the story with aplomb and with excellent singing. It is worth seeing for that alone.

**111