Whenever a relative opera novice or occasional toe-dipper tells me how he or she cried at the end of La bohème, I want to send them to La fanciulla del West. Of course I choke up at the end of Bohème – who doesn't? – but for a good bawling session, the fabulously maudlin finale of Fanciulla is the place to be. The plot doesn't bode well. Taking place in California in 1849 during the Gold Rush, our heroine, Minnie, runs a saloon for, and teaches bible to, the miners, who adore her. She becomes enamoured of a bandit, Ramerrez (disguised as Dick Johnson), and must deflect the advances of the Sheriff, Jack Rance. At the close of Act 2, she wins Ramerrez's life in a poker game with Rance (in which she cheats), but Ramerrez is recaptured and about to be lynched until Minnie arrives, whooping like a Valkyrie, and convinces the miners et al to return the love she has always shown them by setting him free. Ramerrez and Minnie ride off into the sunset singing "Addio mia California", the miners weep, realizing they will never see her again, and Puccini leaves the orchestra silent. Audience sobbing ensues.

Kristin Sampson (Minnie) © Sarah Shatz
Kristin Sampson (Minnie)
© Sarah Shatz

So it's campy, but also very sophisticated orchestrally, with dips into French impressionist harmonies and moments of transparent scoring amidst the fiery situations. And there are plenty of gigantic numbers and the most strenuous, soaring vocal lines for soprano and tenor Puccini ever wrote. Despite the miners' singing "Hello, Minnie," "Whiskey" and "“Doo dah, doo dah day," which invariably evokes laughter, one gets carried away with the "great symphonic poem," as Arturo Toscanini called it, and the plight of Minnie and her "bandito di strada," ridiculously translated here as "road agent." And the poker game has to be seen and heard to be believed.

Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson) and Kevin Short (Jack Rance) © Sarah Shatz
Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson) and Kevin Short (Jack Rance)
© Sarah Shatz

The New York City Opera opened its fall season very ambitiously with four performances at the 1100 seat Rose Theater. It is a co-production with opera houses in Lucca, Cagliari and North Carolina; with luck it won't bankrupt any of them. Ivan Stefanutti's set design consists of three risers (on logs – a nice, old-westish touch), projections of mountain ranges and snow (looking oddly like screen savers) and moveable staircase, tables, and so forth. His costumes are another story, with Minnie in weird denim culottes and slightly too form-fitting bodice, Ramerrez in a too-tight vest, too-loose chaps and what looked treacherously like a codpiece. Not to mention Rance, in a huge fur coat and electric blue suit!

Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson) and Kristin Sampson (Minnie) © Sarah Shatz
Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson) and Kristin Sampson (Minnie)
© Sarah Shatz

Soprano Kristin Sampson and tenor Jonathan Burton were perfectly matched: huge, bright voices with secure high B flats, Bs and Cs (the love duet was performed without cuts, the first time I've ever encountered that other than on recordings) and decidedly unsubtle delivery, which nonetheless thrilled. Kevin Short bullied his way through Rance's music, but certainly left a grand impression. Kenneth Overton's Jake Wallace, who sings a beautiful "song" about homesickness in Act 1, whose melody returns for the grand finale, was deeply touching. The dozen smaller roles, all of them well defined by Puccini, were all well taken and with so much ensemble work, made a grand sound.

Kevin Short (Rance) and Kristin Sampson (Minnie) © Sarah Shatz
Kevin Short (Rance) and Kristin Sampson (Minnie)
© Sarah Shatz

James Meena, the general director of Opera Carolina, led a loud, in-your-face performance which led to aural overload, but the NYCO Orchestra and Chorus were close to brilliant in their accuracy and enthusiasm. Stylistic complaints abound (and I've only hinted at what went on with the surtitles), but when all is said and done, this new production is miles ahead in fervor and song than was presented at the Met a few years ago. So check your disbelief at the cloakroom, leave your six shooter at the door, and hie thee to the next available performance of this opera.