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.
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.