Opera North Strikes Gold in Puccini’s West.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Puccini, La fanciulla del West: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes (conductor), Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds 21.1.2014 (JL)

Minnie: Alwyn Mellor
Jack Rance: Robert Hayward
Dick Johnson (Ramerrez): Rafael Rojas
Nick: Bonaventura Bottone
Ashby: Graeme Danby
Sonora: Eddie Wade
Trin: Adrian Dwyer
Jake Wallace: Gavan Ring
José Castro: Dean Robinson
Sid: Jeremy Peaker
Handsome: Peter Bodenham
Harry: Paul Rendall
Joe: Graham Russell
Happy: Paul Gibson
Jim Larkens: Nicholas Butterfield
Billy Jackrabbit: Callum Thorpe
Wowkle: Kathryn Walker
The Pony Express rider: Nicholas Watts
Director: Aletta Collins
Set Designer: Giles Cadle
Costume Designer: Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting Designer: Andreas Fuchs
Video Designer: Andrzej Goulding

The celebrity-studded New York world premiere of The Girl of the Golden West in 1910 could hardly have gone wrong. The leading roles were taken by two of the great operatic voices of the day, Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn, both noted for their acting ability. Toscanini directed from the pit. This was forever going to be a hard act to follow.

Opera North’s new production sported a class cast, but not with similar celebrity status. What it did have, and what matters more, was an all-round ensemble power. This was an economical, dramatic, taut rendering of Puccini’s tautest operatic score. Toscanini called it an operatic symphonic poem. Seen as such, the key player was Richard Farnes directing from the pit, a darkened place where the musicians are buried with their backs to the action. One of his practices in rehearsal is to engage the players as much as possible, moment by moment, in the actions and moods of the plot. This showed throughout the evening as the beautiful, subtle touches in the score were contrasted with the crashing climaxes to maximum impact. Yet at the same time Farnes had an absolute hold on the steady unfolding of the drama from start to finish, with immaculate pacing that never over-indulged the passing moment, a trap into which it so easy to fall.

The scenery was simple yet evocative, the outer acts  set in an uncluttered wild west bar that is devoted to drinking and cards, the central act in the contrasting privacy of a cosy log cabin interior. The costumes were recognisably of time and place and could have transferred to any Hollywood Western of public imagination. There were no pretensions to distract the proceedings and this refreshing, no-nonsense approach of Aletta Collins in her production was a great strength. There was no attempt here to transfer the action elsewhere as in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Netherlands Opera production which was placed in contemporary Wall Street, a ploy that inevitably caused some apoplexy in more traditional quarters.

 In the first act, Puccini cleverly sets the varying moods, conveying the nostalgia of the miners for home and loved ones ( “I miss my Mum”) but at the same time developing a sense of underlying pent up violence. The bustling stage business of the miners was choreographed with skill, matching music and action with unerring timing.

The lead soprano role is one of Puccini’s most demanding. It has often been claimed that the composer’s characters lack depth, but Minnie is one of his more complex creations. Her domain is as keeper of the bar and its discipline, custodian of the miners’ money and teacher of bible and literacy. She is in charge and it is her comfort zone. Come personal matters of love and romance she is innocent, uncertain and vulnerable. Alwyn Mellor, whose entrance, spot lit with gun in hand, conveyed well the woman in charge in a man’s world. By the end of the act where her vulnerable side comes to the fore, she was less successful. This was more than compensated  for by her voice. Alwyn Mellor has, over recent years, been emerging as one of the world’s notable Wagnerians, not just by virtue of a big voice, but by one that is absolutely secure and capable of impressive range, colour and dynamic. Her scenes in the second act with the two main male protagonists were vocally and dramatically especially powerful.

Both baritone Robert Hayward as Jack Rance, and tenor Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson, perfectly matched her and refused to be vocally outgunned. At climactic moments all three of them were able to blast their top notes over Puccini’s unforgiving orchestration. The men acted well, Robert Hayward as the commanding Sheriff whose macho side is undone by his uncontrollable desire for Minnie, and Rafael Roja, (who, as a Mexican, has good bandit credentials) as Johnson is converted from dangerous robber to weak kneed lover for the same reason.

All other roles were well sung and acted in a production that was a model of ensemble perfection. This was a splendid evening of opera in which, very rarely for Puccini, nobody dies and there is a happy ending.

John Leeman