Holland Park Opera Go West and Excel Themselves

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini La fanciulla del West: Soloists; Holland Park Chorus; City of London Sinfonia/Stuart Stratford. Holland Park, Kensington, London, 3.6.2014 (CC)

Cast: [table]
Minnie, Susannah Glanville
Dick Johnson, Jeff Gwaltney
Jack Rance, Simon Thorpe
Nick, Neal Cooper
Sonora, Nicholas Garrett
Trin,Jung Soo Yun
Sid, Peter Brathwaite
Bello, James Harrison
Harry, Oliver Brignall
Joe, Edward Hughes
Happy, John Lofthouse
Jim Larkens , Aidan Smith
Ashby, Graeme Broadbent
Wowkle, Laura Woods
Billy Jackrabbit, Tom Stoddart
Jake Wallace, Simon Wilding
Jose Castro, Henry Grant Kerswell
Pony Express Rider, Michael Bradley [/table]


Director                  –        Stephen Barlow
Designer                 –        Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Designer      –        Richard Howell


Opportunities to see a production of La fanciulla del West are surprisingly few and far between. Bohèmes and Toscas seem everywhere, and yet Fanciulla is (arguably) the better score. Certainly this writer finds it so. Often criticised for its lack of stand-alone, excerptable arias, this rather empty point ignores the opera’s fine sense of flow. Fanciulla’s architecture reveals itself with a master’s hand rather than stopping and starting. Puccini’s achingly lyrical lines are out in multiplicity, and glorious they are: it is just that they rather lead into one another so the drama flows perfectly. The scoring, too, is tremendous, and always perfectly judged. There are influences here that give Puccini a wide palette: Debussy is one in the transparency of texture, but orientalism makes a surprise appearance at one point also.

In fact there is so much going on in the orchestra that it needs a conductor with a fine ear to do it all justice. Stuart Stratford recently conducted an excellent Glass Satyagraha at English National Opera (see my review), and he was if anything more impressive here. He clearly has great sensitivity for his singers. He listened keenly and, for the vast majority of the time, avoided drowning the weaker members of the (large) cast. It is worth mentioning that there is a preternaturally large number of named roles in this opera, and care had clearly gone into the choosing of personnel. The sense of ensemble was strong.

The production (Stephen Barlow) takes us from the Wild West to the Nevada of the 1950s, with its nuclear tests, a time of black-and-white televisions and glitzy neon signs. Puccini’s indication is actually 1849/50. There do not to be substantial dramatic gains in the updating: the final gesture of the (projected) aeroplane as the couple fly off is visually impressive at the time but on reflection it is rather corny. And there is an on-stage motorbike at one point, the sort of thing ENO down the road rejoices in but one wonders every time if it is really necessary. In actual fact, though, what Opera Holland Park has done with its budget is quite remarkable, invoking the cozy cabin of the second act as well as the gambling salon of the first extremely effectively.

The evening is dominated by Susannah Glanville’s feisty Minnie. Glanville’s biography tells us she has been predominantly active at Opera North, so it is good to see her south of Watford and one hopes she will make the journey more often. Her voice is beautifully mature and fully formed, and as far as acting goes she threw herself into this rewarding role. Her voice is strong enough for Stratford not to have to quieten the orchestra unduly, yet she is capable of heart-melting tenderness. She seems preternaturally attuned to Puccini’s method of utterance, also, as well as completely at home in Italian.
The Sheriff, Jack Rance, is played by Tasmanian singer Simon Thorpe, one of the stronger singers who has a fine sense of drama. He makes us believe the emotional journey Rance goes through during the course of the opera. The main male role is that of Dick Johnson (alias Ramirez), here taken by American tenor  Jeff Gwaltney. He has an excellent voice, but it the dynamic range is not wide enough. here: one really could feel Stratford pulling back his orchestral forces to allow Gwlatney though on those soaring Puccini lines. As a result, the thrill of the tenor voice soaring over a large orchestra was largely missing, unfortunately. It was in the tender love duet that he found his (pardon the pun) forte, and it was here that he and Glanville emerged as musical equals.
Among the many smaller roles, it was Laura Woods’ Wowkie that stood out like a laser beam. Her biography catalogues a variety of roles but at minor venues, and one hopes she continues to move up the ladder. She seemed perfect;y at home on the stage, but more, her voice and acting combined to deliver pure delight.

The chorus is inevitably an all male expression of the midwest male mentality, and the Holland Park Chorus was in fine voice. This is beyond doubt the finest offering I have yet seen from Opera Holland Park and it was a truly auspicious beginning to their 2014 season. Bravo a tutti.

Colin Clarke

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