Wednesday 4 June 2014

La Fanciulla del West at Opera Holland Park

Susannah Glanville as Minnie and Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson in OHP’s La fanciulla del West. Photo Fritz Curzon
Susannah Glanville as Minnie &
Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson
La fanciulla del West
Photo Fritz Curzon
Puccini La Fanciulla del West: Susannah Glanville, Jeff Gwaltney, Simon Thorpe, Stuart Straford: Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 03 2014
Star rating: 3.5

1950's Las Vegas setting for new production of Puccini's Wild West opera

Opera Holland Park's 2014 season opened last night (3 June 2014) with Stephen Barlow's new production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, with Susannah Glanville as Minnie, Jeff Gwaltney as Dick Johnson, Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance, with Neal Cooper as Nick, Nicholas Garrett as Sonora, Graeme Broadbent as Ashby, Tom Stoddart as Billy Jackrabbit and Laura Woods as Wowkle. Stuart Stratford conducted with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.

Puccini's Wild West opera opened to great acclaim in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with a cast including Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato. The opera has, however, failed to find a place in opera houses in the way that Puccini's other major operas have. Covent Garden's 1977 production (premiered with Carole Neblett, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes) brought the opera to the fore and it has been performed by Opera North, Opera Holland Park and Grange Park Opera. But in the run up to this new Opera Holland Park production (they last performed it in 2004), lots of people commented how unusual the opera was and how they had not heard it before.

The piece needs a large cast (17 named roles) and is the most through-composed of Puccini's operas. There are big tunes, but hardly any of the arias and duets are excerptable, though score is one of Puccini's most sophisticated and thoughtful. The role of Minnie requires a soprano who can combine heft and flexibility, ideally rather more of a spinto than say Tosca. But perhaps the biggest problem lies in the fact that Puccini and his librettists have created their own dramatic world. These are not real gold rush-types, they are far to emotional and sentimental for that and sentiment runs strongly through the opera. But if you take it on its own terms, take it seriously then the opera works very well and can pack a real punch.

Stephen Barlow and designer Yannis Thavoris chose to set the piece in the 1950's. Before the music started we were treated to a short segment with a news cameraman filming the first atomic explosion in the Nevada desert. Then we were whisked to the 'Polka Room' of the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas in 1951. The gold rush miners had become solidiers and tourists, gamblers all. Jack Rance (Simon Thorpe) was the local sherrif and Minnie (Susannah Glanville) the hostess in the bar, complete with glitzy cow-girl outfit. Barlow then ran with this premise for the remaining opera.

It wasn't a perfect fit, but not too much violence was done to Puccini's plot and it was possible to sit back and enjoy the show; it really was a show, Susannah Glanville's gun toting first entrance was quite a coup. But details niggled. The sentimentality of the plot made no more sense in 1950's Nevada than in 1850's gold-rush California. Minnie's religiosity troubled me in the new context. In the 1850's gold rush, Minnie is effectively being a missionary, using her religion to educate and civilise the miners, but why was she giving bible lessons in a bar in the 1950's. And her religious moment stood out a little too much, giving her a rather Evangelical side to her character. The 1950's setting rather reduced Minnie, she was no-longer keeping order in a frontier town but simply in a bar. On her entry, we need to appreciate the sheer strength of her personality, but here all we got was glitz.

But Glanville made a radiant Minnie, and certainly brought of the combination of charm and naivety that the concept of the role required. Glanville is perhaps best known for her Strauss roles and she certainly brought a lovely flexibility to Minnie with a nice sense of radiant charm. In the more intimate moments, such as the opening of act two when she is dressing up, Glanville was nicely touching and she made the more confiding, religious moments in act one work as well. I think that Minnie is a role that Glanville will grow into, at the moment it seems on the limits and occasionally she seemed to have to push her voice a little too much. Top notes took on a rather tremulous quality under pressure, something that was not unattractive but did not seem quite in character for straight-shooting Minnie. But, frankly, Glanville was not helped by conductor Stuart Stratford. With no proper pit, any conductor at Opera Holland Park needs to be sympathetic to balance problems. Stratford seemed to encourage the large orchestra (28 strings, 4 horns,2  trumpets, 3 trombones) to play out and there were too many moments when Glanville clearly was not able to ride the torrent. This was a shame, as it masked a sophisticated performance.

Tenor Jeff Gwaltney had fewer such problems, he has already sung Erik in The Flying Dutchman (for Scottish Opera) and he seems set to develop into a fine dramatic tenor. He is a big bloke and made a convincing bandit, managing to combine physical charm with a certain impressiveness. He has a voice to match; true, he perhaps lacks some Italianate sheen but he had a nicely easy delivery and a good freedom at the top. Both visually and aurally this was a lovely coherent, convincing performance.

Both Gwaltney and Glanville seemed to have developed a nice rapport and their scenes together in acts one and two, gave us a lovely intimate view of the progression of their relationship. Puccini's writing here for Minnie and Johnson is more believable than in La Boheme, and Gwaltney and Glanville took advantage of this with poignant results.

Simon Thorpe made a very sympathetic Jack Rance. Thorpe's performance lacked the nasty edge with some performers bring to the role, and you felt very much the character's sadness and loneliness. I did wonder though, whether this robbed the card scene at the end of act three of some of its power to thrill. Whilst Thorpe and Glanville did develop the tension admirably, the scene did not crackle the way it should.

Susannah Glanville as Minnie, Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance, Nicholas Garrett as Sonora, Neal Cooper as Nick and Graeme Broadbent as Ashby in OHP’s La fanciulla del West. Photo Fritz Curzon.
Susannah Glanville as Minnie, Simon Thorpe as Jack Rance, Nicholas Garrett as Sonora, Neal Cooper as Nick and Graeme Broadbent as Ashby in OHP’s La fanciulla del West. Photo Fritz Curzon.
The smaller roles were all excellently cast, with a series of characterful cameos from each of the ragazzi. Neal Cooper made a fine barman, Nick (a role I forever associate with Francis Egerton), with Nicholas Garrett as a strong Sonora. Jung Soo Yun was Trin, Peter Braithwaite was Sid, James Harrison was Bello, Oliver Brignall was Harry, Edward Hughes was Joe, John Lofthouse was Happy and Aidan Smith was Jim Larkens. Graeme Broadbent made an impressive Ashby. Laura Woods and Tom Stoddart were the two Indians, Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit, except that here they were Indian only in so much as that was their costume in the bar. Simon Wilding was Jack Wallace, getting the really big tune of the evening. with Henry Grant Kerswell as Joe Castro and Michael Bradley as the Pony Express Rider.

But despite all the individual good work, there were a couple of problems. In act one, Barlow and Thavoris had chosen to utilise the wide open space of the Opera Holland Park stage which meant that the ensembles in this act had the men well spread out. The space was simply not helpful to the singers and ensemble suffered. Also, it did not help that with Stratford and the orchestra being over-enthusiastic in the pit, some of the individual voices were covered.

Balance apart, the playing from the City of London Sinfonia was in fact thrillingly vibrant, and certainly added to the vividness of the performances.

This was not quite a vintage performance, director Stephen Barlow's ideas did not quite work but they provided a thoughtful and interesting view of the work. A brave attempt to move it from its Gold Rush setting and shed new light. Barlow and Stratford drew some fine performances from their cast and this is the sort of show which seems set to settle down well during the run.

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1 comment:

  1. Good review. I fully agree with your thoughts re: Ms Glanville, but by no means was this a failing for her. She did a good job. I was impressed with Mr Gwaltney, and once again, agree fully with your thoughts.


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