Girl of the Golden West
11- 18 October 2003
Reviewer: Elizabeth Paterson
Conductor Jacques Lacombe Director Joseph McClain Chorus director Leslie Uyeda Costume designer Christine Reimer Scenery designer Christopher McCollum Lighting designer David Nancarrow Fight director David Bloom
"More daring ... and bigger" Puccini wrote to his publisher describing his new work, La Fanciulla del West, The Girl of the Golden West. Vancouver Opera has risen to the challenges this opera offers.
Besides the atmosphere, quite the opposite of the intimate La Boheme Puccini's letter referred to the size of the orchestra of nearly 70, both expensive from the organization's point of view, and challenging to sing over for the artists. They must also take on the 'daring' of the difficult music.
Puccini was in his prime when he began work on La Fanciulla, a thoroughly accomplished composer with a string of popular successes, Tosca, La Boheme; Madama Butterfly, and well aware of currents in contemporary music. He used the up-to-date techniques of his time, whole note scales, odd harmonies, uncomfortable rhythms, to create a work full of technically difficult music. The role of Minnie is especially challenging and courage as well as technique is needed to undertake it.
Luckily Mary Jane Johnson has both and considerable acting talent as well. John Fanning as Jack Rance, the sheriff and would-be lover, was equally good, both musically and dramatically. Their scenes together were full of energy and drive. Renzo Zulian as Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson, bandit and true lover, also sang beautifully. On opening night he was overpowered by both Minnie and the orchestra, especially in the first act. The balance was much improved by the end of the evening, giving promise for the rest of the run.
The orchestra under Jacques Lacombe, played well and energetically, always bringing out Puccini's lyricism.
The smaller parts were all well sung and well acted, particularly the role of Sonora (Andrew Tees). As ever, the Vancouver Opera Chorus under Leslie Uyeda was thoroughly professional.
The sets range from the realistic period bar room with a backdrop of steep and snowy mountain tops, through Minnie's cabin, also realistic, to a more abstract cold and angular final scene in which, although it is outside, the mountains are merely suggested. The idea should be highly effective, but it is thoroughly under-mined by the steep rake of the stage and the unevenness of the surface downstage.. The singers often moved awkwardly and fears for their safety distracted the audience.
Most of the costumes enhanced the performance. The miners are dressed in the muted colours of worn work clothes. Jack Rance has a wonderful long leather coat, full of authority, but his opponent Ramerrez/Johnson almost fades into the background in inconspicous costuming. Some of Minnie's costumes could be more flattering, particularly her last outfit in a very vivid shade of blue.
The story of La Fanciulla is based on a play by David Belasco, a very successful New York playwright and producer. The librettists kept the dramatic conventions of the play which provides a satisfying experience for an audience. Dramatic irony (in the lynching scenes for example) and the verbal theme of 'lontano', 'far off' combine with the moods and motifs of Puccini's music to create a world far away and unhappy, but capable of love.
The Girl of the Golden West runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, October 11, 14, 16, and 18 at 8:00 o'clock.
© 2003, Elizabeth Paterson