Gripping Revival of Kosky’s Gritty La fanciulla del West

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Puccini, La fanciulla del West: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Marco Armiliato (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich, 12.1.2018. (JR)

Catherine Naglestad (Minnie), Scott Hendricks (Jack Rance); © Monika Rittershaus
Catherine Naglestad (Minnie) & Scott Hendricks (Jack Rance) © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Barrie Kosky
Sets/Lights – Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn

Minnie – Catherine Naglestad
Dick Johnson – Brandon Jovanovich
Jack Rance – Scott Hendricks
Nick – Martin Zysset
Ashby – Pavel Daniluk
Sonora – Cheyne Davidson
Trin – Jonathan Abernethy
Sid – Valerij Murga
Bello – Tomasz Kumiega
Harry – Thobela Ntshanyana
Joe – Bogusław Bidziński
Happy – Dmytro Kalmuchyn
Larkens – Cody Quattlebaum
Billy Jackrabbit – Donald Thomson
Wowkle – Karina Demurova
Jack Wallace – Yuriy Tsiple
José Castro – Alexander Kiechle
A postman – Omer Kobiljak
A banjo player – Carlos Vega

I very much enjoyed this Barrie Kosky production when it first appeared at Zurich Opera four years ago and now came a chance to see a revival with some new singers, mainly Brandon Jovanovich as Dick Johnson, his debut in the role.

Some opera-lovers consider La fanciulla del West (or The Girl of the Golden West) as inferior to Puccini’s middle period trio of La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Tosca, and also to his late work, Turandot. Personally, I feel that, given an intelligent and entertaining, occasionally witty production such as that by Kosky, and a slew of fine singers, Fanciulla can stand, head high, next to all of the above. Puccini himself wrote in a letter in 1910 to a friend that he considered it his best work and there is an anecdote that Puccini slept with a copy of the score under his pillow (along with that of his seldom performed La rondine).

Kosky sets the action, as he puts it, in ‘the last bar in the last village in the last territory at the very edge of the world’. It is cut off from civilization, God-forsaken and barren. It is a sort of anti-Paradise, although whisky is freely available. There is, however, a severe shortage of available women. In such places men become animals, like rabid dogs fighting for the last piece of meat. It takes little to get them angry and attack an individual, such as a card cheat or assumed robber’s accomplice.

Conductor Marco Armiliato clearly reveres the piece; his mother came from Puccini’s birth-place Lucca and his grand-mother claimed she met Puccini. Armiliato conducts the score with passion, right from the opening bars that have the audience jump out from their seats. The colours of the score were splendidly brought out, whether delicate harp, dove-tailing woodwind or gentle percussion.

La fanciulla del West is not performed much nowadays, as it requires a large number of competent singers. Zurich is fortunate to have secured not only three fine soloists but also to be able to draw on a welter of talented newcomers from its International Opera Studio, the springboard of many a young performer.

Catherine Nagelstad is still a marvel in the role of Minnie, though she had to swoop to a couple of her high notes. Her scenes with Jovanovich were touching, her scenes with Hendricks convincing. Scott Hendricks is a sturdy Rance, acts superbly throughout, though is not in the same vocal class as a Sherrill Milnes. I had misgivings about Zoran Todovorich as Johnson four years ago and was relieved to see him replaced by Brandon Jovanovich who cuts a charismatic dash as the suave robber and hits all the notes, not of course with the creaminess and ring of a Domingo, but with ample power.

The minor roles are all well taken: Martin Zysset was very pleasing as Nick (though he only sang in the one performance I witnessed), Pavel Daniluk a sonorous and amusingly drunken Jack Ashby. Cheyne Davison stood out in the part of gentle Sonora, and was always audibly pleasing. A newcomer to watch is Thobela Ntshanyana, winner two years ago of the Royal College of Music’s Clonter Opera Prize; his light lyrical tenor was ear-catching. Yurij Tsiple as the minstrel Jack Wallace has the best tune of the opera; I have heard it better sung, I have to say. A look-a-like reappears before the final scene (during a very noisy scene change) to strum the soulful tune on a banjo, artistic license, but the tune is worth hearing twice.

The male chorus was on fine form.

At the première at the Met, in 1910, there were 14 curtain calls after Act I, 19 after Act II and no fewer than 52 at the final curtain. Zurich managed fewer than that, of course, but what had been a very good evening at the opera four years ago turned out, this time round, to be a great night.

John Rhodes

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