Monday 26 September 2005

La Fanciulla del West

To Covent Garden on Saturday to see Puccini's opera, La Fanciulla del West. Based on Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, which was made into a film starring Barbara Stanwyck, the opera is an unlikely amalgam of Italian operatic sentiment and the American Wild West.

The Royal Opera's production was new in 1977, it was intended to celebrate the American Bicentennial but arrived a year late. At the time he worked on the production, designer Kenneth Adam had also been working on production design for the James Bond movies. He and director Piero Faggioni came up with a hyper realistic setting. The production was heavily refurbished for this outing, in fact there had been rumours of its demise. The good news it that it still looks good and that the production values remain high.

It is easy to send up Puccini's spaghetti western and over-do all the character acting in the small roles and it is a tribute to the Royal Opera that the production still remains firmly realistic, taking itself seriously and never sending itself up. This sort of opera, with a host of small roles, is one that Covent Garden does well. The characters who inhabit Minne's bar were all strongly cast from Young Artist Robert Murray playing Harry to Robert Lloyd as Ashby and Francis Egerton as Nick. Egerton has been performing at the Royal Opera almost as long as I have been going and I am pretty sure that he played the barman Nick in the first performances of this production. His voice is certainly showing signs of age, but his performance remains a strong one.

But of course, not only needs a strong supporting cast but strong principals. As the bandit Dick Johnson/Ramirez Jose Cura might not have looked sufficiently dangerous, Gary Cooper he ain't, but his voice was another matter; for the entire evening he produced a gorgeous stream of sound, truly sexy. As Minne, Andrea Gruber looked a bit Mumsy, which is perhaps a valid view of Minnie. In the more dramatic scenes her big, vibrato laden voice paid off and she was a fine partner for Cura; but in the opening act, when Minnie has to be more low key, her voice was less suited to the part and you missed a greater sense of line.

As the sheriff, Mark Delavan made a very human villain so that in the early parts of the opera one could be sorry for him. Delvan cut a very impressive figure on the stage and turned Rance into the larger than life figure that he should be. All in all the three principals made a finely balance team, which is something that you can't always say in opera nowadays.

The disadvantage of this production were obvious from the beginning of Act 1, the wooden floor of the bar might be realistic but it is also noisy, any major chorus movement was accompanied by the creak of floorboards. Goodness knows what it sounded like on Radio 3 (Saturday's performance was a simultaneous broadcast). The opera is a substantial 3 act affair, but the problems changing the scenes meant that the intervals were billed to last 35 minutes each and in fact over-ran. After the first interval we returned to our seats to find that we could still hear the whine of an electric drill.

My partner David, who was seeing the opera for the first time, commented that he felt that designer and director could have been a little more imaginative and used the revolve somewhat, to give us a production which was realistic but whose scene changes were rather simpler. Still, it was a great evening. The orchestra, under Pappano, played well and from the opening notes Pappano gave us a performance which combined impetus with flexibility. I'm not sure that I need to see this production again in a hurry, but it has made me think about buying a recording again. I must see what is available.

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