Ireland Wexford Festival Opera  – Puccini, La fanciulla del West: Cast of Wexford Festival Opera / Giorgio D’Alonzo (music director). Clayton Whites Hotel, Wexford, 23.10.2018. (RB)
Minnie – Elisabetta Farris
Jack Rance – Craig Irvin
Dick Johnson – Richard Shaffrey
Nick – José de Eça
Ashby – Jack Sandison
Sonora – Jolyon Loy
Trin – Chase Hopkins
Harry – Andrew Masterson
Joe – Dominick Felix
Jim Larkens – René Bloice-Sanders
Wowkie – Cecilia Gaetani
Jake Wallace/Happy – Ben Watkins
José Castro – Elias Benito-Arranz
The Pony Express Rider – David Lynn
Stage director – Brenda Harris
Stage and Costume designer – Angela Giulia Toso
Lighting designer – Johann Fitzpatrick
This was the last of the three short works to be staged by Wexford Festival Opera. Puccini rated La fanciulla del West as his greatest work. He was clearly under the spell of the French impressionists and Wagner when writing the music, although he assimilated these influences into his own unique style. It has never been as popular as the great middle period operas or Turandot, perhaps because it does not contain the same show-stopping highlights of these works. The production followed the libretto in setting the action in the middle of the nineteenth century during the Californian Gold Rush. Inevitably, decisions needed to be made about what material to cut in this condensed version of the opera. The plot was clear and easy to follow and the music was seamless, so the right decisions were clearly made. Angela Toso did an excellent job creating the Polka Saloon in Act I while the period costumes were spot on. In Act II Johnson had to hide in a trunk rather than in the loft, a decision no doubt arrived at because of the space limitations on the stage. This idea did not entirely work and the portrayal of the scene was not dramatically convincing. The performers used the hall itself to depict the great outdoors and at various points the performers walked through the audience on to the stage.
The three principal cast members did a reasonably good job with their respective roles. Italian soprano, Elisabetta Farris, portrayed gun-toting Minnie as both resourceful and maternal and her exchanges with the miners were skilfully handled. I was less convinced by the romantic relationship in Act II as there seemed to be very little chemistry between Farris and Richard Shaffrey’s Dick Johnson. Farris handled the daunting demands of Puccini’s score well and a lot of the singing was very fine. However, there was a slight quiver in her voice which occasionally detracted from the performance and some of the top notes in Act I sounded a little harsh. Irish tenor, Richard Shaffrey, gave a relatively subdued portrayal of Dick Johnson which grew on me as the opera progressed although I would have liked to see a little more tough man machismo. Shaffrey’s vocal entries were smooth and luminous and he clearly has a very beautiful voice, but he lacked focus in some of the quieter entries and power in the set pieces numbers.
Craig Irvin captured the obsessional and dangerous Jack Rance to perfection. He epitomised the Jack Palance-type cowboy villain and his brooding presence radiated danger and dominated the stage. His singing was robust and perfectly executed and he moved seamlessly from quiet menace to snarling commands and romantic pleading. The rest of the cast did an excellent job with their respective roles and I was particularly impressed with José de Eça’s Nick. Music director, Giorgio D’Alonzo, accompanied the singers beautifully throughout.
Overall, this was an enjoyable production containing some very good singing and playing and it provided a welcome opportunity to see Puccini’s neglected masterpiece.