In this evocative Californian gold rush tale Puccini turns away from his typically ill-fated heroine for a strong central character, a born survivor in a man’s world. Minnie (Claire Rutter) is a feisty, pistol-carrying matriarch, and her growing love for a notorious bandit provides his redemption and the plot’s emotional curve. Unlike Puccini’s celebrated trio of tragedies, all ends happily ever after in La fanciulla del West and – in pure Hollywood style – Minnie and her lover Dick Johnson, otherwise the bandit Ramerrez (Lorenzo Decaro) leave the stage silhouetted by a golden sun.
In Stephen Medcalf's production at Grange Park Opera, gold-coloured whisky bottles made a strong visual impact on the wall of the rough, dusty miner’s bar, the Polka saloon, with shelving receding into the distance giving the impression of a deeper stage. Convincing as Francis O’Connor’s set may be, his dapper miners are too well-dressed for the harsh realities of a typical pan-handler of 1849. But the dolls-house tidiness and rugged cut-away walls of Minnie’s cosy mountain refuge create sharp contrast to her isolation and bleak wintry surroundings. A forest clearing, criss-crossed by rail tracks, looms up menacingly in Act III, neatly setting the stage for the lynching of Johnson by the jealous Sherriff (Stephen Gadd) that never quite occurs owing to Minnie’s heartfelt intervention.
Visually impressive, La fanciulla is also musically impressive with little between its three central characters. Claire Rutter is a no-nonsense and reassuringly robust Minnie, and if, on occasion, one might hear steely tones, there is no denying her enveloping warmth, heard to magnificent effect in the bible-reading scene, her childhood memories, “Laggiù nel Soledad” and the close of Act I where she is overcome as Johnson tells her she has the face of an angel. Lorenzo Decaro makes for an heroic, if lumpen, Johnson, vocally convincing, if not always intelligible, in his Act III aria “Ch’ella mi creda” pleading for the miners’ sensitivity. It was Stephen Gadd as Sheriff Jack Rance who was the most vocally consistent, providing polish in his amorous confession to Minnie “Minnie dalla mia casa son partito”, or snarling authority during their poker game for Johnson’s freedom.
Memorable within the various cameo roles was a pure-toned and beguiling Hanna-Liisa Kirchin as the squaw Wowkle, and Thomas Humphreys as Jake Wallace whose homesick lament reached into the very heart of this score. Equally effective was the sonorous tones of Jihoon Kim as Ashby, (the Wells Fargo agent) but it was the collective men’s singing (and their characterisation as miners) that was particularly persuasive. Their a cappella choruses were beautifully rendered, with attention sustained by poignant dynamics and superb ensemble. A hard-working Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra brilliantly illuminated what is one of Puccini’s most lavish scores, guided by an unfailingly efficient and undemonstrative Stephen Barlow. In general it was an unsentimental interpretation, fast paced with the foot on the accelerator. The grand orchestral writing for Minnie’s first entrance could have been broader and, at times, the orchestra could have been a shade quieter, but these are passing niggles in what was otherwise an imaginatively-conceived and musically rewarding evening.
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