It’s a great entrance: the barkeeper Minnie bursts through a wall into her saloon, clad in full Vegas-style, scarlet cowgirl gear, white stetson over Farrah Fawcett blonde curls, pistol in hand as she breaks up the fight, to the strains of that high impact music that Puccini does so well. We are, truly, in the Golden West.

Jeff Gwaltney (Dick Johnson) and Susannah Glanville (Minnie) © Fritz Curzon
Jeff Gwaltney (Dick Johnson) and Susannah Glanville (Minnie)
© Fritz Curzon

Stephen Barlow’s staging of La fanciulla del West, for Opera Holland Park, shifts the action a hundred years or so forwards from the 1849 gold rush and five hundred miles or so across the Sierra Nevada from the California gold rush to Las Vegas. The result is easy on the eye: the costumes for the girls are pure eye candy, grimy miners are replaced by smart young squaddies (apparently engaged in nuclear tests) and Yannis Thavoris’s sets are very attractive, especially Minnie’s cabin in Act II. But the prettiness sits oddly with the dialogue: the down-at-heel goldrushers are far too wholesome to be barely scratching a living, and when it (importantly) snows heavily in Act II, I couldn’t suppress the thought that Las Vegas is a desert (where, it turns out, the all-time record snowfall is nine inches). Verismo? What verismo?

The three principal characters are the sheriff Jack Rance (Simon Thorpe), Minnie (Susannah Glanville) and the bandit Ramerrez (a.k.a “Dick Johnson from Sacramento”, Jeff Gwaltney). In Act I, each in turn gets a big entrance aria in which they come on stage and are supposed to draw every eye. Staging-wise, it was great. Vocally, all three entrance arias failed to lift off, with the singers perhaps not properly warmed up. It was a damp chilly evening, the Holland Park semi-open-air tent isn’t the easiest of acoustics, and although Stuart Stratford seemed to me to be reining in the City of London Sinfonia quite reasonably, none of Thorpe, Glanville or Gwaltney cut through the orchestra to achieve real magnetism.

As a result, Act I was pleasant enough, set the scene nicely, but dragged slightly. However, we got there. The critical point of the opera comes while “Johnson” is in process of falling head over heels in love with Minnie: an offstage whistle tells him that his gang are ready to rob her saloon – all he has to do is whistle back. In an aria delivered blisteringly by Glanville, Minnie tells how she is protecting the life savings of her community and that if the gold is robbed, it will be over her dead body. The whistle goes unanswered – scarcely anywhere in opera can the absence of a sound be so eloquent.

Susannah Glanville (Minnie) and Simon Thorpe (Jack Rance) © Fritz Curzon
Susannah Glanville (Minnie) and Simon Thorpe (Jack Rance)
© Fritz Curzon

In acts II and III, Glanville and Gwaltney’s voices both hit peak form and achieved exactly the kind of romantic chemistry you would wish. Gwaltney’s tenor is open, clean and unwavering, nicely able to turn a phrase. Glanville’s voice is also clean, with no signs of strain or excessive vibrato, and copes with all parts of the register without fading. In the climactic lynching scene of Act III, she was very definitely warmed up and showed masses of power to cut through the huge orchestral and choral forces around her. It’s a demanding part – Minnie is on stage for almost the whole opera – and in the end, Glanville impressed. Thorpe’s Jack Rance was melodic and nice to listen to, but I found it a little too cultured for the role: Rance is a pretty rough diamond, after all, particularly when desperate at being spurned.

La fanciulla has a big cast of minor characters, far too long to enumerate. Graeme Broadbent particularly impressed as Ashby, the man from the bank who is masterminding the manhunt for Ramerrez.

Reading various recent reviews of La fanciulla del West, I can’t help being struck by a common thread: everyone wonders why this opera isn’t performed more often. Puccini thought it was one of his best scores, and while his orchestral palette is hugely more restricted than later 20th century opera (in particular, Britten and Poulenc use many times the number of effects), Puccini achieves every bit as much emotion and atmosphere with variety of phrasing and harmony, all the while deploying his melodic gifts to best advantage.

And also, this is a rare example of a dramatic opera with a happy ending. It’s very much “deus ex machina” (or, in this case, “cowgirl ex machina” as Minnie storms in on a Harley Davidson to save the day). The closing aria, in which she persuades the lynch mob to let her lover go free, may look cheesy on the synopsis, but it works – in spite of a staging gimmick which I won’t spoil but I thought played things for laughs at exactly the wrong time – and sent us all on our way feeling great and genuinely uplifted.