Thursday 16 October 2014

Girl of the Golden West

The cast and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
The cast and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
Puccini The Girl of the Golden West; Bullock, Auty, English National Opera, dir. Jones, cond. Wilson; London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Oct 10 2014
Star rating: 3.5

First production at ENO of Puccini's American opera

This is first new production of 'Girl of the Golden West' ('La fanciulla del west') by the ENO in 50 years. Directed by Richard Jones it was an entertaining little opera, but also a bit of a mixed bag - superb playing by the orchestra sometimes drowned out the singers, odd American(ish) accents came and went, and although the costuming was a little strange, the scenery was neatly done and atmospheric.

Written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) 'La fanciulla del west' was his first opera after the troubles and rewrites of 'Madam Butterfly'. Based on a play (1905, published as a story in 1911) by American David Belasco (1853-1931) who had also been responsible for 'Butterfly', the libretto was written by Guelfo Civinini (this translation back into English by Kelley Rourke) – a new departure for Puccini whose long time collaborator Giuseppe Giacosa had recently died.

Susan Bullock and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
Susan Bullock and ENO chorus in The Girl of the Golden West
© Robert Workman
The soprano this role was created for, Emmy Destinn (1878-1930), would have been 32 at the time but although she had already been singing dramatic Wagnerian roles she is considered to have had a lyric than Wagnerian voice. The tenor role was written for Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), and both Caruso and Destinn were singing with the Metropolitan Opera when this opera was commissioned. It was to be the first world premiere at the Met, which had been running since 1880.

Influenced by Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, unlike 'Butterfly' this is an opera which is about the story and accompaniment rather than the singers. Folk tunes and ethnic influences enhance characterisation – although they were not necessarily appreciated at the time by the American audience because of their lack of authenticity. Amongst the few arias there is only one real 'tune' and that is for the tenor 'Ch'ella mi creda' ('Let her believe'). Instead of having the music copy and fill in what the singers are doing, Puccini uses the music to drive the drama and adds the vocal melody as part of a flowing palate. Striking examples of this more modern style of opera include sections which are essentially monotone 'speech' while the orchestra busies away, and elsewhere, for example a duet between Minnie and Johnson where the singers simply follow the lyrical flow of the music with their conversation.

Susan Bullock and Leigh Melrose in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
Susan Bullock and Leigh Melrose
© Robert Workman
Despite some great acting and singing, I was left feeling that the two leads were miscast for their roles. Peter Auty (Dick Johnson/Ramerrez) like Caruso is a low tenor and had a lovely bottom range but had to force all his top notes, while Susan Bullock (Minnie) had more of a grown up Wagnerian voice than that of a girl who hopes that the shoes she bought six months ago still fit. Both were new to these roles.

Craig Colclough fitted his role as the sheriff Jack Rance and Clare Presland's brief appearance as Wowkle was a highlight – all put-upon-grump and realism.

Bolstering the plot are series of character studies of the miners describing life on the snowy Californian mountain - including card cheat Sid (Jonathan McGovern), the balladeer Jake Wallace (George Humphreys), the love rivals Sonora (Leigh Melrose) and Trin (Adrian Dwyer). Most of these performers were also either new to the ENO or to their roles - the homesick miner Larkens (Nicholas Crawley) and the barman Nick (Graham Clark) were both new to the ENO.

Graham Clark, Craig Colclough and Jonathan McGovern in The Girl of the Golden West - © Robert Workman
Graham Clark, Craig Colclough and Jonathan McGovern
© Robert Workman
Another first appearance in this opera of firsts was the Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. She has conducted for the Vienna State Opera, Kirov, Bavarian State Opera to name but a few, and for several different operas at the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, but this is her first opera in the UK.

The attempt by some members of the cast to sing with an American accent was a bit of a gimmick. When singing Madam Butterfly no one would think of singing the title role with a Japanese-Italian accent, so why do it just because the opera is set in America? Other parts of the scenario were equally bizarre. The bandit Ramerrez was shot in the guts, an agonising, slow but certain death due to sepsis if he survived the blood loss, yet he still managed to give his pursuers the run around for several days and, we are led to believe, survived to escape to a new life with Minnie. Similarly one of the miners roamed around pretending (badly) to strum a mandolin while the string section of the orchestra was playing in a very un-mandolin kind of a way.

As this is a new production I have no doubts that the little wrinkles will be ironed out as the performances roll by.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover.

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1 comment:

  1. Graham Clark has sung many, many times at ENO. Particularly a memorable Hermann and the lead in The Gambler.


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