REVIEW: Kentucky Opera’s Thrilling Spaghetti Western

Kentucky Opera The Girl of the Golden West Orchestra Dress

Kentucky Opera’s second production of the 2014-2015 season continues in the lesser-known opera repertoire, with a hidden gem, Puccini’s La fanciulla del west.

The Girl of the Golden West is set during the California gold rush in the mid 1800s, a world away from Mimi’s Paris or Cio-Cio San’s Nagasaki, with a musical language that is almost as foreign. The lack of interest for Puccini’s seventh opera could be due to the overwhelming modern success of operas like La bohème and Madame Butterfly, tragic love stories. In La fanciulla, Puccini opts for a romantic thriller, and continues to explore a style of opera called verismo, portraying realism in everyday life (a style he settled into with Tosca).

The overture was cast as an “opening credits,” harkening back to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or from a more recent generation, several Quentin Tarantino films, with brightly animated drawings of all three leads projected on a giant screen. Puccini’s score is less opera and more Hollywood, foreshadowing composers like Miklós Rózsa or Jerome Moross. Maestro Jackson confidently led the Louisville Orchestra musicians through a complex, lush, sometimes weird, score. The orchestra was as impeccable as any LA studio.

Puccini doesn’t skimp on grand musical gestures to mark the entrance of a character or indicate mood — Minnie’s theme is full and assertive. Puccini’s La fanciulla spends less time with long, floating vocal lines, opting for short, speech-like phrases, not unlike the differences between speech patterns of Italian and English. There are show-stoppers, though: Jack Rance’s tribute to Minnie in Act I, Minnie and Johnson’s duet in Act II, and Johnson’s excruciating aria in Act III (Let her believe me free…). Puccini locks the arias and duets tightly into the story, giving the audience little room to slow the momentum with applause, but Friday’s audience threw cheers when needed giving the house a palpable energy.

Our heroine, the saloon owner Minnie, is self-assured and independent, equally comfortable with a revolver or a bible. Soprano Michelle Johnson finds depth and meaning in every note. Her commanding presence and voice solidify Minnie as one of the great operatic leads in the repertoire. Tenor Jonathan Burton plays the affable Dick Johnson, a.k.a. the bandit Ramerrez, Minnie’s love interest and Sheriff Rance’s nemesis. Burton gives Dick Johnson a warmness through his velvety tone and empathetic personality. Baritone Franco Pomponi, who could have just as easily walked off a Coen brothers set, played the stern and cold sheriff Jack Rance. Always dressed in all black, Rance is despicable, and Pomponi’s portrayal leads us down his dark descent into jealousy, but always with vocal finesse.

KY Opera The Girl of the Golden West Final Dress rehersal

The rest of the cast, mostly supporting and male, was consistently strong, where even the shortest phrases were present. Of note was Melisa Bonetti’s Wowkle, who provided the perfect “are you serious?” moments in Act II. Lisa Hasson’s chorus was powerful and precise (she makes a cameo in the curtain call, in the middle of her dudes).

Kentucky Opera’s production showed a dramatic cohesion and stability, with an attention to detail that engrossed the audience, who were gasping and laughing in a natural rhythm with the fast-paced drama. Puccini is largely responsible for this energy, but stage director John Hoomes kept the stage and house energetic, even through Puccini’s slower moments. Production designer Barry Steele’s giant, backlit projections, blended with impeccable sets, giving the stage depth and texture, from scenic Sierra mountain backdrops to a blinding snow storm. With any new technology there are expected misfires, and there may have been a couple of odd moments or choices.

Kentucky Opera’s La fanciulla del west has set a high bar for the company, and general director David Roth’s vision of a “repertoire reimagined” may be coming to fruition. Where Fidelio fell short, La fanciulla showed a creative team with vision and imperative, combined with musicians who fully embodied their role. This is as close to a perfect production as a company can strive for.

One final thought about the one “character” named chorus, irrespective of this production, though there were a few odd blocking moments. It’s an unwieldy piece to any major opera. How do you manage a unit of 20-40 people without proclaiming “Here’s the chorus!” every time they sing or walk on stage? The use of a chorus ultimately lies in the nuance. Less is more. A chorus provides musical punctuation and anecdotal depth, in the same way a great film score lets us know how to feel without telling us how to feel. The chorus is an innocent bystander mirroring the emotions of those who are sitting a few feet away in suits and dresses. The best staged choruses, like the film scores, are the ones you don’t notice until they’re taken away.

Kentucky Opera’s final performance of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is Sunday at 2pm at the Brown Theater.

 

VIDEO: Kentucky Opera’s “The Girl of the Golden West”

Young Artist Competition Results

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Congratulations to the winners of the 2014 Classical 90.5/PNC Wealth Management Young Artist Competition! See the results below and attend the free winner’s recital on Wednesday, November 26th at noon, on Lunchtime Classics. The first place, second place, and honorable mentions perform on the winner’s recital.

First Place

Aemin Kim (16), piano

Second Place

Tie
Emily Redden (17), soprano
Maxwell Thompson (16), marimba

Honorable Mentions

Colin Crothers (12), piano
Landys Guo (16), piano
Ted Kang (17), violin
Sarah Martel (13), piano
Megan Wang (14), piano
Clara Warford (16), harp
Christopher Zhou (18), clarinet

Junior Award

Kennan King (9), piano

Judges

Krista Wallace-Boaz
Michael Hill
Daniel Gilliam

GIVEAWAY: Jessye Norman at Kentucky Author Forum

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Jessye Norman will be speaking at the Kentucky Author Forum on Monday, and it’s SOLD OUT, but you can enter for a chance to win two tickets. Details below…
This contest is now closed! Thanks for entering and good luck!

New Music Festival Preview: Agata Zubel

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of series previewing the 2014 New Music Festival at the University of Louisville School of Music.

Agata Zubel (b. 1978) has been described as ‘a rarity’ in the world of musical composition. A native of Wrocław, Poland, she studied percussion and music theory at the Karol Szymanowski High School of Music. Her studies continued at the Karol Lipinski University of Music in composition under the tutelage of Jan Wichrowski as well as vocals with Danuta Paziuk-Zipser. She is an active performer, composer, and music professor at The Academy of Music in Wrocław. She formed a vocal and electronic ensemble with Cezary Duchnowski, and together they perform under the name ElettroVoce. She has won numerous awards for her compositions, including the Polityka Passport Award for classical music (2005). Agata Zubel has received a special award for the duo ElettroVoce at the Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Amsterdam, and First Prize at the Krzysztof Penderecki International Competition of Contemporary Chamber Music.

The listener might think of calling her style “percussive vocalism” – beatboxing comes to mind. She has created a musical language that places the process of sound production in a place of equal importance to the sounds themselves. Her music is full of surprising contrasts, such as the pairing of long, lyrical violin playing with shouting. Zubel is a gifted performer and often performs the vocal part to her own compositions. Sound collages are created by making syllabic vocal sounds, for example, purposeful stuttering to begin a phrase; continued by stretching out the process of making the word or phrase come out of her mouth, and resulting in an overall statement. Her timbral requirements are daunting for the vocalist: pops, clicks, hisses, growls, and moans are included as part of the text. Sometimes these vocal acrobatics are paired with electronics to create loops or reverberation. The sounds are often stacked in layers to create complex and fascinating webs during the climactic moments of her music. Although instruments are often used in her works, they tend to play a secondary role to the vocal line. Her music is at once sensual and unpredictable, dynamic and unforgettable.

Zubel will be featured as a visiting composer and performer on the University of Louisville School of Music’s 2014 New Music Festival. She will be performing her pieces Cascando and Parlando during the festival. The following week she returns with the Illinois Modern Ensemble to perform Not I based on the monologue by Samuel Beckett, winner of the top award at the 60th UNESCO International Composer’s Rostrum and 2014 “Polonica Nova” Prize.

Michelle Gilfert, Jon Hodge, Matt Wetmore and Samantha Holman contributed to this article. They are students of Dr. Rebecca Jemian, a member of the music theory faculty at the University of Louisville.