Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, here at ENO as The Girl of the Golden West, is an uncomplicated opera: a long first act which establishes the background setting of Gold Rush California and in which characters are fully developed, a dramatic, romantic second in which the heroine Minnie discovers that her lover Dick Johnson is in fact the bandit Ramerrez and plays cards for his life, and a deus ex machina third in which Minnie saves Johnson from the noose of the vengeful miners. The music is pure Italianate Puccini with his trademark melodic swell. I guess that makes La fanciulla the first ever Spaghetti Western.

Graham Clark as Nick, Christopher Colclough as Rance, Jonathan McGovern as Sid © Robert Workman
Graham Clark as Nick, Christopher Colclough as Rance, Jonathan McGovern as Sid
© Robert Workman

Blissfully, for me, this is an opera where director Richard Jones trusts the material: his staging simply presents the original story with as much character as he can inject into the surroundings, acting and stage movement. For sure, the opera is a melodrama. While it’s possible to be 100% verismo in Act I, you’d better not take the next two acts too literally: they work only if you can allow the romance of Puccini’s music to take over your soul and separate you from your critical faculties. For me at least, that’s exactly what this performance achieved.

Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson has conducted plenty of opera in Europe’s major houses – Munich, Zurich, the Mariinsky, Vienna and more – but this is the first time she has conducted an opera in the UK: clearly, we’ve been missing out. This was an exceptionally sure-footed orchestral performance: pacy, exciting and with a good sense of melodic arc. What impressed especially was Wilson’s control of dynamics: in the build up to a dramatic moment, you might have thought that you were hearing a relatively fully voiced orchestra, but when the critical moment arrived, there was masses of power in reserve which Wilson would unleash to blow you away.

Susan Bullock as Minnie © Robert Workman
Susan Bullock as Minnie
© Robert Workman
I may have been underwhelmed by Peter Auty in the past, but not here: as Johnson, Auty summoned up a strong and melodic voice which beautifully captured Puccini’s phrasing and line. It was one of those tenor performances where I was constantly happy to listen to the voice, accompanied by decent characterisation of the bandit transformed by love. Susan Bullock was even stronger in her  characterisation of Minnie, totally credible as the only girl in a rough town who is knocked off her feet. Bullock has all the power and vocal ability needed to hit the dramatic parts, but seemed to struggle with her phrasing, and my suspicion is that she found the English translation problematic. Craig Colclough sang a creditable Sheriff Jack Rance, perhaps not the fullest baritone timbre but none the less very expressive. Amongst the smaller roles, Leigh Melrose stole the show as Rance’s rival Sonora, while George Humphreys, portraying Jake Wallace as a blind ballad singer, sang his Act I ballad with grace and nostalgia.

As I’ve often remarked, translating opera is a treacherous business. Kelley Rourke’s version worked fine as a piece of theatre: it sounded natural and placed us nicely in the period and the action. But it did not strike me that many concessions were made to the singers’ need to follow a vocal line written for the smoothness of Italian. This was made worse by some rather unfortunate attempts at American accents, which only succeeded intermittently. And there were some odd wobbles which ought to have been ironed out: the translation seemed designed for a non-American setting, with references to miners from Cornwall and Australia.

Peter Auty as Johnson, Susan Bullock as Minnie © Robert Workman
Peter Auty as Johnson, Susan Bullock as Minnie
© Robert Workman

However, the quality of dialogue coaching apart, this was a production with a great deal of attention to detail. Each set was more or less entirely composed of a building in cross section: we see only the lit indoors, with our only view of the outside world being the falling of night time snow. Costumes are of indeterminate period, but definitely place us in the West. Unusually, no attempt was made at glamourising Minnie, who wears a distinctly schoolmarmy Edwardian dress which suited the character far better than some of the Las Vegas glitz that you often see.

Stage movement was generally thoughtful: I particularly enjoyed the dancing sequences in Act I (apart from Minnie, there are no women at the Polka saloon, so the men are forced to do line dances in short rows) and the choreography as the miners cluster round the bar, the card tables and each other.

But this was a performance which fitted together so well that its whole was worth enormously more than the sum of its parts. The overall effect was that I loved the scenic detail in Act I, was genuinely transported by the romance of Act II and felt satisfying catharsis from the happy ending in Act III. I can’t ask for much more from this opera.

****1