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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Opera Review: Three Aces and a Pair

Apotheosis Opera takes on The Girl of the Golden West
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This Minnie ain't no mouse: Stacy Stofferahn confronts "Dick Johnson" (Nicholas Simpson)
in Act II of Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West. Photo by Matthew Kipnis for Apotheosis Opera.
If the triptych of great tragic operas by Giacomo Puccini can be compared to the iconic tragedies of Shakespeare, then the later works of his catalogue are equivalent to the "problem plays," works that for whatever reason do not hold the stage with the same frequency as La Bohéme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. On Friday night, the young ad hoc company Apotheosis Opera took on one of those works: La Fanciulla del West. This is Apotheosis' second production in its young history, and Fanciulla (English title: The Girl of the Golden West) is Puccini's most difficult show to mount.

This performance, held in the richly painted Teatro del Museo del Barrio at the upper end of Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile, was a huge challenge for any opera company, let alone one made of young singers and musicians committing themselves on their nights off. On Friday night, artists displayed pluck and commitment in the face of adversary, showing not only commitment and enthusiasm but the understanding of this work that comes from hard work and long rehearsal. Much of that credit goes to conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, who decided to follow last year's ambitious Tannhäuser with this even more difficult show.

Set in a California mining town at the height of the gold rush, The Girl presents formidable issues in terms of libretto and staging, not to mention the steep requirements Puccini asked from his leading lady. As Minnie, Stacy Stofferahn commanded the stage from the moment she strode into the Polka Saloon to restore order armed with a shotgun and a Bible. But her best weapons were a Nordic charm and a potent soprano voice. Over three grueling acts, she showed that she had enough aces hidden in her boots to win each of the opera's three acts.

Minnie must ride smoothly through the narrow canyons of the passagio, turning on a dime from a sweet, innocent Sunday school to a mountain lioness determined to defend her lover in the second act. Ms. Stofferahn managed these conflicts adroitly, letting out a great cry of "He is mine!" over the bellowing roar of the huge orchestra at the act's climax. She was even better in the third act, as she faced down a lynch mob of miners determined to string her lover up for his past crimes, and got them all to reflect on the futility of violence and the value of forgiveness.

When this opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, the tenor was Enrico Caruso.  Nicholas Simpson (last year's Tannhäuser) is no Caruso, but he sang with fervor and a Siegfried-like sangfroid. Tall, imposing and as bald as his animated television counterpart, Mr. Simpson drew a laugh with his entry line "So who wants to curl my hair back?" He packed a bright, clarion tenor and carried off his role with enthusiasm, despite pitch problems that appeared when he leapt up the scale into the uppermost range of his instrument. A flawed but enjoyable performance.

Jack Rance is the town sheriff whose blind love for Minnie recalls the Baron Scarpia's cruel streak. John Dominick III sang this difficult role with power and presence, with a plummy, bass-baritone that was occasionally drowned by the waves of sound billowing from the pit.. The other miners in the town (there is no chorus, Puccini instead created fifteen highly indivudual parts) came across as a real community, bonding over crooked card games and reluctantly dancing with each other in Minnie's absence. In the third act, when searching for Johnson, the miners invaded the house, creating spatial effects that were much more effective than singing offstage.

In this witty, spare production by Lucca Damilano, the complex social interactions of the first act were more than just a time-killer. Played against a simple set with a Star Trek-like suggestion of doors and windows, the onstage action was a fascinating look into the miners' lonely little world. Indeed, this production's greatest service may be that it presented Fanciulla in a fresh light. With a smart, accurate English translation (by Kelley Rourke, solving many of the libretto's awkward American-isms, Apotheosis showed that you don't have to visit the Met to see Puccini's West.

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