Sunday, April 24, 2005

New York City Opera - Puccini's La Fanciulla del West 4/23/2005

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. First Tier, Seat B20.

Conductor: George Manahan; Rance – Stephen Kechulius, Minnie – Stephanie Friede, Johnson/Rameriz – Renzo Zulian.

Story: Minnie, the owner of a tavern at a California gold mining town, falls in love with the outlaw Rameriz who visits disguised as Johnson. Minnie ends up saving the life of Johnson twice, first by winning a poker game with Sheriff Rance, then by convincing the townspeople that he should be freed.

I still consider myself a novice opera person. I started going regularly when I lived in Los Angeles in 2001/2002, attending several performances by the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. My observations are that one’s sense of reality has to be suspended, and much of the story happens outside of the opera itself. Nonetheless, operas have a way to catch one’s imagination and resonate with one’s emotions.

It’s difficult to write my first review. I’m not sure what I should comment on, the music, the story, how the opera performance went, or other issues. Perhaps I should start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this opera, even though my expectations going in were not very high.

When the curtain opened, the audience applauded. NYC Opera, for some reason (budgetary?), usually has rather Spartan settings: a trunk here or a bed there would serve as the scenery. For the Girl, though, there is this relatively elaborate setup of a gold mining town. However, when the members and the chorus began to sing, I felt disappointed at the acoustics. The sound quality and volume were both inconsistent. Fortunately, as the story went on, things began to settle down. The first familiar aria, sung by Jack Wallace, a blind minstrel played by Brian Mulligan, was very well done. This “detachable aria” (as the program notes describe it) paints the humanity of these rough and tough miners: they can be homesick and sentimental. However, the initial appearance of Minnie was not promising – I had a hard time picking her out in the otherwise all-men crowd. It certainly didn’t live up to the description in the program notes (“scene-stopping.”) I am still confused about Minnie’s job: was she an entertainer, hostess, bar-owner, or bible teacher? My bet is “tavern owner,” it really doesn’t matter.

Act 2 didn’t begin auspiciously either. The sound quality at the beginning was annoyingly inconsistent, again. I don’t know if that was due to the performers, the stage, or the sound system. [As an aside, I read this concert hall has a “sound-enhancement system” involving 100 or so microphones planted throughout. I will record my findings when I get around to finding what they are.] It speaks to the power of this opera that after a short while I forgot all about this problem, being totally absorbed in the performance. When Johnson was found by Rance, Minnie challenged Rance to a winner-take-all poker game. It was a captivating scene, even though I knew how it would turn out – having read the synopsis – with the cellos/double-basses playing two notes in repetition. When Minnie cheated at the third game, the audience all chuckled with delight. At this point, we were all wondering who Nina M (can’t spell her last name) is; she being the woman everyone is accused of lusting after. Turns out Nina never appears on stage.

The audience all breathed a sigh of relief when Minnie won her poker game. The curtain could have come down there and then, and everyone would go home happy.

Act 3 in a sense was a replay of the capture and release of Johnson, and for a while I wasn’t sure it added a lot to the opera. (Not that NYC Opera would have dared cut it out.) My reservations were completed negated towards the end where Minnie movingly appealed individually to each one in the posse (Sonora, Joe, Harry, Trin, Happy & Bello – I wrote these down in the darkened theater). They were simple statements recalling the kindness of each person (e.g., who brought her flowers) and asking them to forgive Johnson. In real life Johnson probably would still be lynched, but this is to have a happy ending, so Johnson was spared and he and Minnie disappeared happily into the sunset (no kidding) to the delight of all. (Or it is the sunrise as Playbill says.)

It puzzles me why “The Girl of the Golden West” isn’t performed more regularly than it is. I have seen three other Puccini operas (Turandot, La Boheme & Madama Butterfly), and this one certainly deserves the same level of popularity as the other three. I recommend strongly that you make an effort to go if they are performed in your area.

See also the New York Times Review on this opera.