Friday 24 October 2014

Second view: La Fanciulla del West at the London Coliseum

Leigh Melrose as Sonora and the cast of The Girl of the Golden West  © Robert Workman
Leigh Melrose and the cast of The Girl of the Golden West  © Robert Workman
Puccini La Fanciulla del West; Bullock, Auty, Colclough, English National Opera dir. Jones, cond. Wilson; London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling drama and fine ensemble in Puccini's gold-rush opera

We finally managed to catch up with English National Opera's first ever production of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) at the London Coliseum on Wednesday 22 October 2014 (see Hilary's review on this blog). Susan Bullock was Minnie, Peter Auty was Dick Johnson, Craig Colclough was Jack Rance with Graham Clark as Nick and Leigh Melrose as Sonora. The production was directed by Richard Jones, with sets by Miriam Baethner, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and choreography by Lucy Burge. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted.

Many of Puccini's operas are complex theatrical mechanisms which do not really respond to extreme tinkering. Richard Jones acknowledged this in an interview on BBC Radio 3's Music Matters. Jones's production gave us just about what the libretto and music ask for, albeit with a typical Jones spin.

The production is a co-production with Santa Fe Opera which means it must fit in with Santa Fe's limited stage facilities. We did have gold-rush miners, but the theatrical world was an hermetically sealed one. We saw little outside world, just the interiors of the Polka Saloon, and Minnie's cabin, plus the frontage of the Marshall's office. And all reflected Jones's liking for crowded theatrical spaces. In style the look was more 1950's than 1850's though the costumes were more in period.

This is an opera ENO should have done years ago, with its big chorus part and large number of small roles. And the chorus and soloists did Puccini proud, with the chorus and solos vividly and strongly sung. This was particularly noticeable in the first act where, unlike Opera Holland Park's recent staging (see my review), Jones worked with the music and results were visually and aurally satisfying. Leigh Melrose was Sonora, Nicholas Crawley was Larkens, Adrian Dwyer was Trin, Jonathan McGovern was Sid, Charles Rice was Handsome, Richard Roberts was Harry, Sam Furness was Joe, Alexander Robin Baker was Happy, Nicholas Masters was Ashby, George Humphreys was Jake Wallace, Jimmy Holliday was Billy Jackrabbit and Clare Presland was Wowkle

Jimmy Holliday as Billy Jackrabbit and Graham Clark as Nick the bartender in The Girl of the Golden West © Robert Workman
Jimmy Holliday as Billy Jackrabbit and Graham Clark as Nick the bartender
© Robert Workman
Graham Clark is a singer whose performances I have followed since his early career at Scottish Opera and ENO in the 1970's and 1980's. He made a vivid Nick the barman, a performance which will stand alongside that of Francis Egerton at the Royal Opera House. Other smaller roles were equally strong, with Leigh Melrose as Sonora and Nicholas Masters as Ashby standing out from a strong pack.

Minnie is an impossible role. The first Minnie combined lyric Italian roles with Wagner. Puccini's orchestra is big, with triple woodwind so the singer requires stamina especially in the lower register, but must have a good upper register for the climaxes.

Susan Bullock was nearly ideal, she gave a convincingly detailed performance and was highly believable as the naive school ma'am like figure with a romantic heart. She projected a remarkable number of words and the more conversational passages were finely sung. But in the big phrases, where the voice needs to blossom, we were a little too aware of the number of Brunnhildes and Elektras she has sung. Frankly, this was not a performance I would want on record, but in the theatre it was all of a piece. By the end I was both convinced and moved.

I first saw La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden when the tenor who made the big entry through the saloon door in act one was Placido Dominlgo. For ENO it was Peter Auty looking unrecognisable in a dark wig. His rather distinctive voice has an interesting tang to it, but though a little tight at the top he had the ability to craft a finely shaped and well supported Puccinian phrase. He had swagger and appeal, but sounded right.

Peter Auty and Susan Bullock in The Girl of the Golden West  © Robert Workman
Peter Auty and Susan Bullock © Robert Workman
Auty and Bullock developed a strong relationship and act two had some thrilling moments, but poignant ones too. And both remained fresh enough to deliver the closing pages with a lovely freedom.

Craig Colclough was a name that was new to me and his Jack Rance was vivid and not a little vicious. Not as sympathetic as some, but thrillingly sung and the card scene fairly crackled.

Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson was a real find. She drew a finely played performance from the orchestra as well as drawing together the very large cast into a strong ensemble. She gave the orchestra its head but kept the balance so the singers could converse without being covered. She has just become musical director of the Slovenian National Philharmonic. I hope we see her back soon.

The opera was sung in Kelley Rourke's serviceable English translation. Frankly I did not need it in English and missed the Italian. And the translation did not always flow well with Puccini's vocal lines. The singers attempted American accents with mixed results, and was simply a mistake.

Rather worryingly the Coliseum was nowhere near full and a number of people around me were on £20 secret seats. Jones's iconic production seems to have neither drawn in the regular opera goers nor young people and first timers in quantity.

I am very curious to know how this very British take on Puccini's American opera will go down in Santa Fe, I do hope that La Fanciulla del West returns soon and that ENO feels able to experiment with singers in the lead roles.
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