Fascination with the mythology of the Californian Gold Rush, which could be classified under “Wild West” because of the six guns, wide-brimmed hats and visceral feelings, is still widespread, long after the first performance of this opera in 1910, with Caruso in the lead. Even Queen Victoria had been fond of Buffalo Bill, who had toured Europe with his show, and pulp fiction authors writing in several languages made money – Karl May in Germany, for example – but over the years, many people in Britain have come to assume that characters in the world of cowboys should speak (and sing) in at least a version of English. This is possibly why this neglected masterpiece, described by Toscanini as “a great symphonic poem”, is not performed as often as it should be. Or perhaps it is seen as a bit of a joke, an early spaghetti western. More credibly, audiences dislike a lack of the showstoppers they associate with the composer.

Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson and Alwyn Mellor as Minnie © Clive Barda
Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson and Alwyn Mellor as Minnie
© Clive Barda

There are nods to the pulp fiction tradition in this production – in the set, for instance (designed by Giles Cadle), which has simple but witty comic-book touches: the silhouette of a pine tree is seen against a huge pale moon behind a mountainside cabin, the Polka saloon in the remote mining camp is seen from different perspectives, in one scene with enormous swing doors, and the shadow of a man in a Stetson hat dominates the stage at the start. To give a brief outline of the story, taken from a play with the same name by the famous Broadway impresario David Belasco: the owner of a saloon, Minnie, falls in love with Dick Johnson, who is really Ramerrez, a bandit. The Sheriff, Jack Rance, is in love with her too, obsessively, and of course would like to hang Ramerrez. Minnie saves Ramerrez twice, and in the end they both walk off into a new dawn. She claims he is the first man she has ever kissed. The spurned Rance is left behind, festering. Puccini was impressed. His opera became a personal favourite.

Ensemble work is usually superb in Opera North productions. Here at Leeds’ Grand Theatre, it is, with a chorus of whisky-sozzled scruffs drinking, milling about, bunching up, brawling, pointing rifles and singing wonderfully, all well organized by director Aletta Collins with fight director Austin Spangler. These turbulent, far-from-home males are yearning for female contact after the gold-panning, and adore Minnie, their innocent gun-toting Madonna, an unusual saloon mistress. The alternative woman, local whore Nina Micheltorena, is just mentioned and never seen. The rich and complex orchestration (conductor Richard Farnes), an emotional feast with hints of Debussy and references to American folk songs like “The Old Dog Tray”, dominates Act I, in spite of the mass actions on stage and the individual life breathed into minor characters. Everything really lifts off after the interval.

Robert Hayward (black suit) as Jack Rance and Dean Robinson as José Castro (seated) © Clive Barda
Robert Hayward (black suit) as Jack Rance and Dean Robinson as José Castro (seated)
© Clive Barda
Act II, set in a cabin, gives Alwyn Mellor as Minnie the chance to prove that La Fanciulla could be ranked with Madame Butterfly: her “Oh se sapeste” is both technically perfect and thrilling. Mellor brings the boldness and confidence of a Brünnhilde to this role, giving the character new depths. Puccini apparently had a sort of Mary Pickford figure in his mind for the role. Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas plays Mexican bandit Ramerrez, a musical relative of Cavaradossi. His powerful, rather sweet and sentimental tones are just right for the passionate love scene with Minnie, though her cumbersome undergarment (flannelette?) emphasizes that all is right and proper. Baritone Robert Hayward’s Rance looks less like an alcoholic in this act than later on, as he hurriedly gropes our heroine, and he brings a wicked authority to the part. Hayward, who was a strong Balstrode in Opera North’s recent Peter Grimes, gives us a really pathetic Rance in Act III.

The saloon inhabitants become a posse, a lynch mob and a crowd of earnest penitants with great speed (which must have presented Collins with a few problems), but the final act satisfies because of the scenes around the rope dangling from a rafter. Rojas has his magic moments with the only real showstopper – “Ch’ella mì creda libero” – when he pleads that Minnie must not know his fate, as he waits to be hoisted up by the vicious sheriff. This is hair-raisingly effective, truly memorable.

****1