ENO’s La Fanciulla Fails to Evoke Wild West

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Keri-Lynn Wilson (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 2.10.14. (JPr)

NO's The Girl of the Golden West Act I c Robert Workman-
ENO’s The Girl of the Golden West Act I c Robert Workman-

Minnie: Susan Bullock
Jack Rance: Craig Colclough
Dick Johnson: Peter Auty
Nick: Graham Clark
Sonora: Leigh Melrose
Larkens: Nicholas Crawley
Trin: Adrian Dwyer
Sid: Jonathan McGovern
Handsome: Charles Rice
Harry: Richard Roberts
Joe: Sam Furness
Happy: Alexander Robin Baker
Ashby: Nicholas Masters
Jake Wallace: George Humphreys
Wowkle: Clare Presland

Director: Richard Jones
Set Designer: Miriam Buether
Costume Designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Choreographer: Lucy Burge
Librettist: Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after David Belasco
Translator: Kelley Rourke

1907 was a great year for all lifelong fans like me of ‘horse operas’ – Western films – and  for real  opera  too  as  it was  the year in which the legendary movie star John Wayne was born and also when Puccini found an American subject for his  next  opera  after  visiting  the United States. David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West gave him a scenario that appealed to him very much – ‘an open space in the great California forest, with colossal trees’. The opera seemed to succeed with the public on its première at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910. However critics were generally unenthusiastic. The music was considered too modern and it was neither American enough for American critics nor sufficiently Italian for those in Puccini’s home country. Yet for Anton Webern in 1919, it was ….‘Splendid. Every bar astonishing. Very special sounds. Not a shade of kitsch!’

In La fanciulla Puccini tries to fuse tightly constructed uninterrupted drama with continuously expressive music and Debussy-like impressionism. Critics felt that it lacked the pure lyricism of Puccini’s earlier operas and was also too melodramatic to be fully credible; and so La fanciulla del West has never ranked as high as La bohème, Tosca or Turandot. Much of it does seem unlikely – a bunch of weeping, childlike gold miners singing (originally) in Italian or Minnie’s Act I bible class – or even downright offensive now, like the Native Americans given pidgin vocabulary and stereotyping of them for their love of whisky. (Surprisingly still emphasised with browned-up singers when Otello recently in the same theatre was not allowed to look like a Moor!).

One reason why La fanciulla del West is worth its occasional revival is its rich, dense score where hints of chromaticism and dissonance are wedded to music from La bohème and the yet to be composed Turandot. Puccini ends up with a great outpouring of music with recurring fragments of motifs related to characters and events. A further reason for its relative unpopularity, however, is the lack of show-stopping moments, even though the work turned out to have lasting effects on the popular musicals of the twentieth century. Without Puccini there would surely be little Andrew Lloyd Webber and  La fanciulla in particular lives on through Dick Johnson’s Act I ‘Quello che tacete’ that is believed to have inspired Phantom of the Opera’s ‘Music of the Night’, suggesting this score had pride of place on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s piano when he was composing that.

La fanciulla presents us with some of Puccini’s most strikingly human characters:  tough, heart-of-gold, Bible-toting (and quoting) American prudes such as Minnie exist even today. Insecure and naïve, they will naturally fall for the bad boy, Dick Johnson, who is actually Ramerrez, the leader of a gang of bandits. Their exchanges, far from being almost wholly romantic as in La bohème should – unlike in this performance – be wonderfully natural, awkward, even embarrassing … which it was in a wrong way because of the rather woeful staging. Their burgeoning romance does not go smoothly as Minnie’s idea of a ‘first date’ involves a single kiss before chastely bedding down Johnson/Ramerrez in her bed while she rests by the fire. Minnie also has Sheriff Jack Rance’s lust and jealousy to contend with.

The romance that La fanciulla depicts is very real and its flawed characters all too familiar to us, despite the American setting and characters  matched against Puccini’s accrued ‘local colour’. It must also not be ignored – though some might want to – how much the composer ‘revered’ Wagner and it is clear that the leading characters in Minnie’s Act II cabin are Siegmund (Johnson), Sieglinde (Minnie) and Rance (Hunding) and Minnie’s exultation over the wounded Johnson often sounds very like Sieglinde’s Act II delirium. It happens too that the story is also built on a familiar Wagnerian theme: the ‘redemption’ of the sinner (Johnson) by ‘das Ewig-Weibliche’ (the eternal feminine) – Minnie.

It is more than 50 years since The Girl of the Golden West was last staged by Sadler’s Wells Opera which later became English National Opera. After their wonderful recent Otello (review here please https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/09/enos-season-starts-off-well-with-new-otello/ ) and with Richard Jones directing a co-production with Santa Fe Opera my hopes were high … however it was not an evening that ranks as one of ENO’s finest achievements. Sadly Richard Jones seems to have been totally disinterested in the opera or perhaps was not given the time or the money to do what he wanted with it. I enjoyed recently his Falstaff and Der Rosenkavalier for Glyndebourne and Anna Nicole at Covent Garden, but with this The Girl of the Golden West he seems to have prematurely aged into Jonathan Miller – not entirely a bad thing but it was not what I was expecting. The essay in the programme about the infamous Donner Party incident (when emigrants heading to California were trapped by snow in a high mountain pass) suggested we might see some hints of their cannibalism that would have appealed to a younger Richard Jones. Or perhaps it could have been updated with influences of Brokeback Mountain (though he does show us men forced to dance together) or completely been sent up and referenced Carry On Cowboy.

With his regular collaborators – Miriam Buether (sets) and Nicky Gillibrand (costumes) – he is faithful to a gold mining community at the time of the opera’s composition. I wasn’t expecting sagebrush but did want some dirt and much more snow than we actually saw since it plays such a big part in the story. In fact when the lights temporarily come up (rather than down) – and the very accomplished Keri-Lynn Wilson and the always reliable English National Opera orchestra launched into Puccini’s brief, albeit evocative, prelude – high in the ornate theatre there looked like something that I thought might be going to spray the audience with snow … it never happened but would have been more atmospheric than anything we subsequently were presented.

The Act I corrugated-roofed, electricity-lit, Polka saloon looked like my local community centre, Minnie’s pristine cabin in Act II must have come in flat packs from the local Ikea store and the nondescript US Marshal’s office for the last act must have taken all of an hour to design. After Minnie has arrived to save Johnson from being hanged and they depart for California the set just recedes. More problematic was that all the action was cramped within very confined spaces so when all the miners were present in the saloon it was much too overcrowded and everyone was just trying to keep out of each other’s way. Minnie and Rance had nowhere to go in her cabin and when Johnson’s accusers chased him in Act III they just ran round and round the Marshal’s office like Keystone Cops – something only slightly less risible than a ‘grand march’ I once saw in an Aida at Covent Garden a few decades ago.

Overall then, this was as unsatisfying an evening as I have recently spent at the London Coliseum – which is not to say that it was all bad, just that the negatives outweighed the positives. I know it is almost heresy to write that for something like this English National Opera should begin to consider performing it in the original language. Employing often cod-American accents and a wordy up-dated translation (‘Would you care for a cookie’ was a stand-out line!) meant words often were garbled and it made me long to hear it, as usual, in Italian. Lack of space meant that the miners were less rowdy than they should be at the start of Act I yet the excellent chorus and the smaller individual roles were the most successful part of the evening. I cannot praise veteran Graham Clark highly enough in his role debut as Nick, the conniving bartender, he voice sounded in remarkable shape and every word was clearly heard unlike some of his colleagues. Nicholas Masters’s Wells Fargo agent, Ashby, and Leigh Melrose’s Sonora were acutely characterised and well sung. As Jack Wallace – an ever-present blind ‘minstrel’/balladeer – there was some mellifluous singing by George Humphreys of his wonderfully nostalgic song with its famously misappropriated Zuni Indian melody.

Everything was let down by the three principals who were probably miscast but, at best, whose voices sounded tired and ill-equipped to meet the challenge of Puccini’s soaring lines and cut through his thick orchestration. Craig Colclough displayed some menace in his acting in Act II as the ‘villain’ Rance and was a believably jealous drunk in Act III, but this could not make up for some unfocussed singing and a dry voice. Peter Auty was unconvincing as the ‘hero’ of the opera, Dick Johnson; his acting was very ‘hammy’ and I also never believed in the apparent blossoming of his love for Minnie that climaxes with a duet (of sorts) in Act II. After that he has little chance for much further passion because he is soon shot and seemingly fatally wounded. Somehow Johnson/Ramerrez recovers and so does Auty for a reasonably impassioned and idiomatic ‘Ch’ella mi creda’ in Act III but it was all a little too late. The weakest of the three was Susan Bullock’s Minnie – even if I can accept she may have been suffering the after-effects of a rumoured chest infection – she was not good enough and this role may have passed her by. Her biography suggest she is ‘the world’s most sought-after British dramatic soprano’ (something that Catherine Foster might debate) but never sounded like it except for a couple of good top notes whilst most of the rest of her singing was poorly supported and sounded thin. Ms Bullock looked a bit frumpy and her acting was also very awkward particularly when Rance assaults her in Act II. She also looked as though someone had given her a holster at the last moment because she was so uncomfortable when brandishing a gun.

Keri-Lynn Wilson, wife of the Met’s Peter Gelb who was in the audience, created an effulgent – almost symphonic – miasma of sound with resounding climaxes that occasionally drowned out the singers on stage. Occasionally forward momentum stalled – particularly when Susan Bullock was singing – but generally her reading was emotionally nuanced and compelling. I suspect the show will improve during its run and is worth going to for the orchestral playing and chorus – but it is not something for true fans of Westerns or verismo singers.


Jim Pritchard


For information about ENO’s performances for this new season visit www.eno.org.