Tuesday 28 June 2016

Emotional punch - La Fanciulla del West at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Claire Rutter & ensemble - photo Robert Workman
Minnie and the boys
Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Claire Rutter & ensemble - photo Robert Workman
Puccini La Fanciulla del West; Claire Rutter, Lorenzo Decaro, Stephen Gadd, dir: Stephen Medcalf/Peter Relton, cond: Stephen Barlow, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 26 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Claire Rutter heads a strong revival of Puccini's gold-rush opera

Grange Park Opera revived Stephen Medcalf's 2008 production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, revival director Peter Relton (seen 26 June 2016), thus giving us a chance to hear Claire Rutter's Minnie, a role that she has sung with some success in the USA. Stephen Gadd played Jack Rance, with Lorenzo Decaro as Dick Johnson, Alberto Sousa as Nick, Michel de Souza as Sonora and Jihoon Kim as Ashby. Stephen Barlow conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Lorenzo Decaro, Claire Rutter - photo Robert Workman
Lorenzo Decaro, Claire Rutter - photo Robert Workman
Puccini's Californian gold-rush opera is a very specific and particular mechanism, it is not the sort of piece which responds to dramaturgical conceits and creative dissonance in the staging. Richard Jones' 2014 staging at ENO successfully updated the time-period by keeping the structure intact (see my review), whereas the 1950's Las Vegas casino setting for Stephen Barlow's production at Opera Holland Park was less successful (see my review). Medcalf's production, designed by Francis O'Connor, gave us an imaginatively traditional view of the opera. The action illuminated with naturalistic detail within O'Connor's rather stylised sets.

Act One is simply a long bar dominated by an array of glass bottles, with a glimpse of the dance floor to the right so that we see the men dancing with each other without it dominating the action, and later we see Minnie (Claire Rutter) dancing on her own after the waltz with Dick Johnson (Lorenzo Decaro). Act Two was just Minnie's hut, a slightly skeletal structure within a bleak landscape which became the setting for the lynching in Act Three, the comings and goings enlivened by the use of a manual power railway car, which became the platform for the hanging. At the end, naturalism disappears as Minnie and Dick leave into a glowing sunset.

Act One benefited from lots of small cameos from the Grange Park Opera ensemble as each of the miners was nicely delineated, showcasing the strength of the ensemble. For all the importance of the soloists, this is very much an ensemble opera and here we had Simon Gikes as Trin, Harry Thatcher as Bello, Paul Milosavljevic as Harry, Adam Tunnicliffe as Joe, Thomas Isherwood as Happy, Lancelot Nomura as Larkens, and Thomas Humphreys as Jack Wallace.

Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Claire Rutter, Stephen Gadd - photo Robert Workman
Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Claire Rutter, Stephen Gadd - photo Robert Workman
Keeping them all in order was Minnie (Claire Rutter), by no means an amazonian tom-boy, Rutter's Minnie was feminine but strong on personality.
She was able to handle a gun yet kept the men in order by sheer force of personality alone, and the sense that she was a mature woman rather than a girl made the whole more believable. She stood up to Stephen Gadd's Jack Rance admirably. Yet she showed her vulnerable side as Minnie falls in love with Dick Johnson (Lorenzo Decaro), and in a lovely sequence we saw Rutter's Minnie visibly melt. It helped of course that Decaro had the right physique, he is a big burly man and was believable a bandit yet had an attractive swagger too him too.  By contrast Gadd's Jack Rance was a brooding and menacing presence, on stage from the opening we were aware of him watching and his brought an almost angry edge to his dealings with the boys.

The smaller solo parts were crisply etched, led by Alberto Sousa as a characterful Nick the barman in love with Minnie like many of the miners. Jihoon Kim brought his lovely dark bass voice to bear on Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, thus giving him a real sense of power and dignity. Michel de Souza was a touchy and prickly Sonora, but certainly the leader of the pack. Seumas Begg gave a nice cameo as the Pony Express rider and Matthew Thistleton was Joe Castor, one of Ramirez' gang.

Grange Park Opera - La Fanciulla del West - Lorenzo Decaro, Stephen Gadd - photo Robert Workman
Lorenzo Decaro, Stephen Gadd - photo Robert Workman
Act One has few arias, and perhaps the most memorable moment is the song from the minstrel, Jake Wallace (Thomas Humphreys), a touching moment of home-sickness and a melody which Puccini brings back at key moments in the opera. For the rest, the act is mainly action and dialogue, and here you felt that Stephen Barlow and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were a little too dominant. They seemed to relish Puccini's rich orchestration a little too much; this was a work in which Puccini was deliberately trying to modernise his style and echoes of contemporaries like Debussy could be heard. The result was that the dialogue was sometimes not quite well balanced with the orchestra.

In the more intimate second act, there was a chance for the dialogue to blossom and the characters to develop. We came to appreciate the beauty of Claire Rutter's tone, and the complexity of Minnie's character as she mixed naivety, sexual inexperience with a swaggering confidence. Hanna-Liisa Kirchin provided strong support as Wowkle, the American Indian who helps Minnie with Louis Hurst as Billy Jackrabbit, the father of Wowkle's baby.

The way Rutter and Decaro allowed Minnie and Dick's romance to blossom in this act was believable and charming, and of course Puccini gives them some big melodies with which to let rip. Here, and in the last act, we were really able to appreciate the gleaming beauty and flexibility of Rutter's upper register. Lorenzo Decaro provided real charm as Dick, along with some beautiful quiet singing, he certainly understood that there was no need to overdo things in the intimate confines of Grange Park. But you sensed he was more used to bigger spaces, and when his voice came under pressure it tended to spread rather and lose focus.

The scenes between Minnie and Jack Rance fairly crackled and the poker game had real tension, perhaps benefiting from the fact that Rutter and Gadd are not only husband and wife but perform regularly together. Gadd's Rance was no caricature, but seemed to burn with a fierce intensity.

There is a certain corny element to the action of Act Three, as the anger of the boys against Dick Johnson (in fact the bandit Ramirez) evaporates into a vein of sentimentality when Minnie enters. But the detail of the personen-regie and the sheer force of Rutter's personality made it work. Here there were no balance issues, and Rutter's voice soared over the orchestra in a series of brilliant climaxes which complemented the strength of Minnie's personality. The ending is sheer kitcsh as Minnie and Dick go off into the sunset. But the production never tried to send it up and the result was a fine balance between the emotionalism of Puccini's score, and the detailed characterisation which had been built up throughout the performance.

Stephen Barlow gave us a relaxed view of Puccini's score, giving it time to expand and register yet enlivened by crisp details. In the pit, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra brought out all the imaginative richness of Puccini's score. La Fanciulla del West is no more Wild-West than Madama Butterfly is Japan, and if you can accept Puccini's combination of sentimentality and exoticism projected onto Gold-rush California, then the score is one which repays attention. It is one of Puccini's most detailed and complex scores; the lack of big melodies deliberate, and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit we were able to revel in the richness of Puccini's orchestral writing.

This was a strong revival of a fine production with the new cast throwing the piece into a new light and making a rather moving evening.

Recommended recordings:
Puccini - La Fanciulla del West - Carol Neblett, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Zubin Mehta
Puccini - La Fanciulla del West - Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Cornell MacNeil, Franco Capuana

Elsewhere on this blog:

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