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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, September 9, 2017

Opera Review: Minnie Shot First

The New York City Opera opens with La fanciulla del West.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A rootin'-tootin' romance: Jonathan Burton and Kristin Sampson in  La fanciulla del West.
Photo by Sara Shatz courtesy New York City Opera.

Of the mature operas by Giacomo Puccini, La fanciulla del West (English title The Girl of the Golden West) is unique. It was his first (and only) opera written for the American stage, premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with Enrico Caruso in the tenor part and the composer in attendance. Based on a play by David Belasco, (he also provided Puccini with source material for Madama Butterfly) its ending preaches tolerance over tragedy. The final curtain descends on an ambiguous but generally happy note as the hero and heroine ride off into a new future. It was an inspired choice to open the second full season of the resuscitated New York City Opera.

The show, seen in its second performance of the young season on Friday evening, was mounted in NYCO’s current home theater: the handsome Rose Theater located just off Columbus Circle. Technically, the Rose, which is home to Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as City Opera, is part of Lincoln Center though it stands three blocks south of that famous campus. This was a handsome if dull production, first mounted stateside by Opera Carolina. The usually Western trappings are present, placed in front of digitlal trompe l’ceil projections. Thee do not distract from the action onstage, which as managed by director Ivan Stefanutti in a tasteful and conservative manner.

This is an easy enough opera to stage. Its chief requirements are Stetson hats, blank stage ammunition and a few fancy six-shooters. However, Fanciulla is a much harder opera to cast. City Opera impresario Michal Cappasso struck it rich with Kristin Sampson, whose golden glowing nugget of a voice was capable of handling Minnis high tessitura and full-on dramatic moments. She found a guttural low range too, heard in the life and-death card game with the Sheriff Jack Rance, and the huge vocal outburst that follows it to end the second act. Perhaps it was misogyny on the composer's part, but Puccini did not give Minnie a proper aria. However, Ms. Sampson’s eloquent plea for clemency from her camp-fellows had all the grandeur and power of Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene, rising a wave of orchestration to a major-key climax.

That mob was led by Jack Rance, the sheriff of the little mining camp and  rival from Minnie's hand. This is a remarkable character, who degenerates from a harsh but fair lawman into a bloodthirsty loon, going mad with frustration and jealousy as the opera progresses. In the last act, Rance leads the mob as they attempt to enact frontier justice. However, baritone Kevin Short fell a little far of the mark. He was simply not up to the heroic demands of the part, and was outsung throughout the night by Ms. Sampson and tenor Jonathan Burton. Mr. Short is a promising singing actor, but Rance requires a larger (and more intimidating) voice.

As Dick Johnson, (the unfortunate pseudonym for the dashing highwayman Ramerrez) tenor Jonathan Burton had an engaging manner and plenty of vocal heft. This was an enormous, flexible instrument, that had the right touch of squillo to power him over the thundering hooves of the orchestra
He was a little pitch-shy in the first act but settled in in the second for the first of his two big arias (and the theme that was memorably pilfered by Andre Lloyd Webber for the score of Phantom.) The climactic Act II duet with Ms. Sampson briefly brought down the house. 

The other challenge in casting Fanciulla is its comprimario parts, written for fourteen skilled singing male actors and one female contralto. There are no small part here, and these singers made the most of them. At the end of this three-hour sojourn into their little community, the ear could discern Happy from Joe, Sonora from Billy Jackrabbit, and Trin from Sid, the tall drink of water who cheats at cards in the first act. Backed by the chorus and led by the exhortations of conductor James Meena at key moments, this fine group of  singers deserves a round of sigari e wiski per tutti.

Their finest moment came in the opera’s climax, where Minnie enters to save her beloved bandit from Rance’s rope. Puccini shows his real mastery here, to stunning effect in the scene where the mining men of this desolate camp in the Sierra mountains chose peace over violence and allowed Minnie and Dick to depart. At this point, the comprimari  formed their characters into a single communal shout, rising up to a grand climax with the full power of the large orchestra driving them forward. More than  anything in this production, it was this moment that indicates the now promising future of the revived New York City Opera, and showed the power of this art form as a force of moral and philosophical benefit to the great city it calls home.

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