Giacomo Puccini never met a foreign culture that he didn’t try to set to music. His operas set in Japan (Madama Butterfly) and China (Turandot) are celebrated as masterpieces. Less celebrated is his encounter with the Old West. The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) is performed far less often than the others, if only because many don’t quite know what to make of it. The idea of jamming together a sophisticated European art form and a rough shoot-’em-up culture can come across, depending on how you look at it, as either insane or inspired.
Virginia Opera has chosen to be inspired by it. Director Lillian Groag and her company have fully embraced the dashing, romantic spirit of the opera, with delightful results. The cast brings great warmth, fine singing, and considerable dramatic talent to this tale of a saloon owner who falls in love with a bandit, much to the chagrin of the local sheriff.
Though the score features Western and Native American flourishes, Puccini’s music is less about adapting any particular culture’s style and more about enhancing the complex emotions of his characters, which it does beautifully. Only in an opera like this could a hardened miner in a saloon start sobbing about missing his mother—and have his fellow miners comfort him instead of mocking him.
The orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Bisantz, handled Puccini’s lush score well, bringing out the nuances and neither dragging nor rushing. Unfortunately, the orchestra had a tendency to drown out the singers, especially in the long recitative passages between arias. The best at rising above it, with resonant and powerful tones, were baritone Mark Walters as Sheriff Jack Rance, and bass-baritone Jake Gardner as Ashby, the Wells Fargo man helping to pursue the bandit Ramirez. Others in the cast had less success being heard, but were able to make an impression when the orchestra pulled back a little during the arias.
The characters, especially the leads, are multifaceted and winsome, and the operatic context makes what could have felt like a tired story feel fresh. Jill Gardner as Minnie gets what is surely one of the greatest entrances for any soprano, firing a shot to settle down the quarreling miners in her saloon. The next thing we know, she’s reading to them from the Bible—a lesson about forgiveness that will prove prophetic. Just in her first scene alone, we’re given examples of Minnie’s strength, intelligence, self-sufficiency, shyness, and compassion.
Gardner invested this endearing character with great fierceness and great tenderness by turns, and sang with clarity and sweetness of tone. As her love interest, Ramirez (a.k.a. Dick Johnson), tenor Roger Honeywell brought out the yearning and melancholy aspects of Puccini’s melodies, and sang a moving rendition of the third-act aria “Ch’ella mi creda.” The entire cast worked harmoniously together: The camaraderie among the miners felt genuine, and the chemistry between the two leads lit up the stage. Comic touches were plentiful, but never over-the-top.
John Conklin’s elaborate and impressive sets and backdrops, and Adam Greene’s subtle but effective lighting, helped bring the show to robust life. Particularly worthy of note was a fine snowfall effect in the second and third acts.
It’s been nearly 35 years since the Virginia Opera last performed The Girl of the Golden West. Let’s hope they don’t wait so long next time. They’ve proved that they can give an underrated opera the excellent production it deserves, and demonstrate why it’s worth another listen.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 55 minutes, with two 20-minute intermissions.
The Virginia Opera‘s The Girl of the Golden West ends its run today, December 3, 2017, at 2 pm at The George Mason Center for the Arts – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For future events at The George Mason Center for the Arts, go to their calendar of events.