Review: NYCO Brings the Old West to Life in Puccini’s ‘La fanciulla del West’
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, September 8, 2017
New York City Opera has not only successfully risen from the ashes, but is doing so through stimulating programming that fills a needed niche. They have opened this season with Puccini’s overlooked, but heavenly, La fanciulla del West, and audiences would do well to leave their brains at home (the corny story will not require those) and run to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater to experience this rarely performed musical masterpiece.
Lamentably, the piece has become notorious in recent decades for containing in it a few phrases (a motif that appears a few times in the richly varied, melodically integrated score) suspiciously identical to motifs employed to lucrative effect by Andrew Lloyd Webber in his 1980’s opus The Phantom of the Opera. But, we must try to put that out of our mind, as where Puccini takes the music from those familiar strains is surprising and exquisite. Indeed, the entire score is a wonder, full of Debussy-like whole-tone scales, pentatonic folk-tunes, and somehow, what feels like an “American” sound.
NYCO has embraced an unabashedly economical approach to the physical productions, routinely employing projections as part of the set design. The projections by lighting designer Michael Baumgarten and stage director, set and costume designer Ivan Stefanutti transported us to the mountains of California as cinematically as a ride at EPCOT Center. The production (a collaboration with three other opera companies) served the piece adequately, even if the physical production seemed noncommittal. The costumes actually did much of the heavy lifting in setting the time and place; a giant fur coat worn by Jack Range, played with steely heft by agile bass-baritone Kevin Short, threatened to steal the show.
The heart of the piece, and especially of this production, is the lead soprano role of Minnie, played wonderfully here by Kristen Sampson. Her warm, shimmering voice was in splendid shape, and crucially for this Annie Oakley-type, her acting of the role was three-dimensional. As gangster-turned-lover Dick Johnson, Jonathan Burton was a teddybear of a bandit, with a warm tenor. The whole cast, with an especially fine men’s chorus, demonstrated well directed body language and movement.
James Meena, principal conductor of Opera Carolina, led a spirited and sweeping performance, bringing out Puccini’s adventurous orchestration effects, with such touches as a wind machine during the blizzard in Act 2. Despite a somewhat strained physical setting, this is a winning production of a gorgeous, neglected Puccini opera with likable characters, that through the power of musical drama, takes a hokey story with a too-easy ending, and makes it matter.
La fanciulla del West presented by New York City Opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on September 6, 8, 10, and 12, 2017. Music by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Guelfo Civinini; based on the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco. Conducted by James Meena; stage direction, set design, costume design and projection design by Ivan Stefanutti; lighting design and projection design by Michael Baumgarten; fight direction by Robert Westley. Cast: Kristin Sampson (Minnie), Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson), Kevin Short (Jack Rance), Alexander Birch Elliott (Sonora), Michael Boley (Nick), Christopher Job (Ashby), and Kenneth Overton (Jake Wallace).
Cover: (l. to r.) Jonathan Burton (Dick Johnson) and Kristin Sampson (Minnie) in NYCO’s ‘La Fanciulla del West;’ photo: Sarah Shatz.