Spaghetti Western at the ENO
In some ways, you could think of Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West as the first spaghetti western. This idea is enhanced in the new and extremely successful production of The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO by Richard Jones. Some of the signature visuals realized by Set Designer Miriam Buether (a certain amount of stylization, the use of neon lighting here and there to point things are arresting in themselves, but with the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, the show is completely evocative of the Gold
Rush era in California and not of some arbitrary updating. The production constantly evokes the quintessentials of Western film design—the saloon, the heroine’s little log cabin. The final scene is set in front of the Sheriff’s office and you almost expect John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda to come on out and save the day.
Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Fanciulla is a bit of a Cinderella among the Puccini operas because it’s Puccini at his most experimental and modernistic. There are few “famous tune” moments; the score is constructed mainly from thematic cells and leitmotifs, rather than Big Moments. But it’s gorgeous and sonorous throughout. And when those moments do come (Jake Wallace’s ballad, various moments of narration by the main characters, the dance sequence in Act I, Jack Rance or Dick Johnson telling about their lives, and above all Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III) they have huge impact. The translation by Kelley Rourke is fine, fits the music, and allows the singers to sound American. The moods evoked by the score are consistent and emotionally suggestive throughout—the sonorities and orchestrations are astonishing.
Richard Jones is not afraid of the great melodramatic swatches of this tale; indeed, he often almost sends them up by having them overacted, causing laughter from the audience, but also reminding one of the early cinematic acting styles contemporary with the opera’s first performances. This, ironically, makes the whole evening feel more authentic because of the way it plays into our experience of Hollywood Westerns. At times the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, but you come out feeling this has, somehow, brought to life the Wild West of the California gold rush. The story remains credible right through the rescue of her lover by Minnie at the end. There’s also a terrific recreation of the kind of mountain snow storms and avalanches that you remember from The Gold Rush or even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
The entire cast sings and acts with exemplary commitment; the sense of the community in which Minnie is a kind of sister of mercy and mentor, a mother figure who is an object of both love and lust among the miners, is strongly conveyed. Craig Colclough makes a slightly one-dimensional Jack Rance– Sherriff and bully–and Peter Auty is a sympathetic Dick Johnson (he’s really– gasp!–the Bandit Ramerrez). Both have fine voices, while Graham Clark’s Nick, Nicholas Masters’ Ashby, Leigh Melrose’s Sonora, Clare Presland’s Wowkle and George Humphreys’ Jake Wallace, the Minstrel, must be praised as standouts among a consistently strong cast.
But the evening truly belongs to the two principal women: Susan Bullock’s tireless, appealing, vivid Minnie; and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, making her UK debut, who draws a brilliant performance from all the musical forces and makes something coherent and luscious of the score. Susan Bullock is a Minnie in the style of Birgit Nilsson; a clarion voice at times warm, at times laser-like; soft with emotion at some moments, over-riding the orchestra at others. Her singing is tireless in a role that must be as demanding as singing Brunnhilde. Her acting’s also particularly fine—a gun-toting cross of Lillian Gish and Marie Dressler—but above all her voice is simply a glorious, Puccinian instrument.
If you are new to this opera, this notable production, cast and conductor will convince you that you need to get to know it better; and if you already know it, it will please you as an excellent and extremely satisfying presentation of an often under-rated work of art. So try to see this new Golden Girl. It’s dramatically and musically practically perfect in every way. October 14 – November 1.
Modernizing the Moor
To mark his 30th work anniversary with the English National Opera, David Alden has been given Otello (celebrating 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth) and has come up with a compelling and evocative production. It is also, for Alden, fairly uncluttered and quite coherent. There are fewer chairs than usual; and the lines of the plot and action are well conveyed. The sets and costumes are contemporary, yet somehow evocative of the original era of the play, so that (for once) the double focus and contemporary references actually work tp enhance what is going on; also, the blocking is somewhat stylized ,yet perfectly clear. So Alden’s fantasies and obsessions do not really get in the way.
This is a good thing because the musical direction by Edward Gardner is exemplary and superbly sonorous. Gardner has a great feeling for this score and its harmonies and a wonderful sense of individual detail, as well as the whole constructed arch of music contrived by Verdi. The orchestra is completely with him; he inspires some brilliant playing. It must also be said that the work of the chorus is exemplary throughout and at times even thrilling.
Gardner also has some wonderful singers to work with. Leah Crocetto, making her company debut, is a sweet-voiced and charming Desdemona; Jonathan Summers is a cold, calculating and powerfully voiced Iago. But the dominant character, as it should be, is the Otello of Stuart Skelton. His timbre is clarion-like when required for the bigger moments yet he can pull back the sound to a moan, a sigh, a taut string-like whine, to express love, misery, jealousy or (when going full blast), his rage and pain. From the opening storm to the murder of Desdemona by Otello and his discovery of how he has been tricked, it is a superb performance and I would certainly like to hear him do the role again. Jonathan Summers’ voice and acting are also both mightily impressive and there is a real contest—as there should be―between this Otello and Iago.
The highlights of the opera are superlatively pointed and performed; the opening storm is dazzling; getting Roderigo drunk a fine love duet; a scary and definitive “Credo”; a powerful ending to Act II from Iago’s Dream Narration onwards.
I took a friend (who once performed as Iago in the play, but had never seen the opera) to see this Otello, and he was bowled over by Summers’ interpretation of the role, and seeing both Summers and Skelton really inhabit their parts. But the full glory of the opera is so richly conveyed because of Gardner’s sensitive, intuitive conducting. Making the play/opera more contemporary in guise worked, finally, because the point of the tale—like so many of Shakespeare’s stories—is ageless. And because Verdi, in his music, offers us a great and convincing interpretation of the many layers of this very great play, while Gardner and his team of singers simply do justice to every nuance of what Verdi has achieved. It’s a triple treat, not to be missed. In repertory at the ENO playing 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 October http://www.eno.org/whats-on/otello