Saddle up for Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Girl of the Golden West’

Great singing, lush orchestral accompaniment put a spit-shine on Puccini’s original Spaghetti Western Opera. But what’s with this SFO production’s cramped sets? Patricia Racette stars in this interesting production.

Minnie (Patricia Racette) and some of her ornery clientele in Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West." (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

SANTA FE, N.M., Aug. 13, 2016 – In a word, the Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Puccini’s rather neglected Wild West, All-American opera, “The Girl of the Golden West” (“La fanciulla del West” for our Italian friends) is simply bodacious. At least in the musical sense.

Patricia Racette as Minnie in Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West." (Photo Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)
Patricia Racette as Minnie in Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” (Photo Credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

Starring soprano Patrician Racette as Minnie, Puccini’s tough, pistol-wielding mining-camp barkeep with the proverbial heart of gold, this opera’s cast of genuine “characters” fires away on all cylinders (and guns) accompanied by an SFO orchestra playing at the top of its game under the inspired baton of Emmanuel Villaume.

Unusually for a Puccini opera, “Fanciulla” isn’t often performed in these here (U.S.) parts. The only other time we can remember catching a performance was at the late conductor Lorin Maazel’s now sadly defunct Castleton Festival for young artists and musicians in the rural northern Virginia hills. It was a sprightly, modestly trimmed production that featured a promising young Russian soprano, Ekaterina Metlova, in the title role.

The Santa Fe Opera, thankfully, brings us the whole opera with the added bonus of featuring one of America’s most accomplished dramatic sopranos, Ms. Racette, who is singing the title role for the very first time.

Why is it so hard to encounter “Fanciulla” these days? It’s likely due to a combination of factors. Perhaps the least familiar of the composer’s major operas today, “Fanciulla” (commissioned and premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1910) is an odd amalgam of verismo, late impressionism and a dollop here and there of cowboy music idioms as re-imagined by an Italian composer.

These seemingly disparate elements combine to relate the story of a plucky, self-assured young woman who serves as barmaid, confessor, and best buddy of a batch of murderous yet loveable miners and cowboys somewhere in California in the late 1800s. Stories like this and similar to this drove many a Hollywood cowboy movie script for much of the 20th century.

Read also: Santa Fe Opera’s elegant, disturbing ‘Vanessa’

For his new, Yankee-commissioned opera, Puccini, perhaps not surprisingly, returned to the same American playwright—David Belasco—who inspired his opera “Madama Butterfly,” which had become a runaway international success after stumbling in its world premiere performances. Searching once again for material that would seem novel and exotic to European audiences while pleasing American audiences as well, he felt that Belasco’s popular romantic drama set in the still-quite-recent gold-rush era would fit the bill.

The composer’s new opera won considerable favor both here and abroad after its New York premiere. But later in the 20th century, the opera proved less of a draw. Perhaps part of the problem was the fact that “Fanciulla” is perhaps the most verismo of Puccini operas. Unlike “Bohème,” “Butterfly,” “Tosca” or even the later “Turandot,” “Fanciulla” boasts at most one memorable aria.

The remainder of the score is “sung through,” in the declamatory manner of Richard Wagner or late-period Verdi. In other words, it’s beautiful music. But there’s little here in the way of tunes you can take home and sing in the shower, and Puccini fans want those wonderful tunes.

Another issue, though a minor one: Given that Belasco’s play and Puccini’s opera both appeared in the early innings of America’s and the world’s long-running fascination with cowboys, Indians and the Wild West, oddly dated bits and pieces of this opera—the frequent “hellos” and “howdies” in Puccini’s Italian score or a crude prospector longing for his Mama, for example—echoing the villainous Turiddu’s similar scene in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”—understandably evoke few chuckles from today’s audiences. Our modern notions of the late 19th century American West are more attuned to the grit of modern treatments like “Lonesome Dove” or HBO’s down and dirty “Deadwood.”

But these aren’t very good reasons for avoiding “The Girl of the Golden West.” Puccini’s music is lush, romantic and frequently driven by undercurrents of darkly sinuous impressionism, particularly evident in the orchestral score, all of which provides a rather exotic backdrop for this opera’s relatively straightforward vocal lines.

At the same time, the opera’s central characters, though perhaps a bit stereotypical for 21st century tastes, are all iconic Wild West character types that give us wider latitude to focus on the composer’s hauntingly beautiful music itself.

Ms. Racette, her fellow principals, and the Santa Fe Opera’s rousing chorus bring it all home in a rich, winning production that’s as fully realized as one is ever likely to get.

As the irrepressible Minnie, Ms. Racette is vigorously pursued by nearly every dodgy miner and cowboy hanging in and about her popular saloon. She inhabits the role as if she’s been singing it forever, creating a richly conflicted and constantly interesting character.

Her Minnie is an incurable romantic who merges her iron will with loftier ideals. It’s why all the guys are in love with her. But it’s also why she sticks with good-for-nothing Dick Johnson. She’s the eternal female optimist who firmly believes she can turn the bad boy she loves into an upright and virtuous citizen and husband.

Vocally, Ms. Racette is a marvelous singing actress whose straightforward and expressive soprano instrument brilliantly and seamlessly embodies all her character’s emotional contrast.

As the story line develops, the mining town/camp’s nasty local sheriff, Jack Rance (baritone Mark Delavan)—a rather atypical Western villain—figures he has first dibs on Minnie’s favors and is more than willing to persuade her less insistent suitors to vamoose by threatening them with his fists or his guns.

Mr. Delavan plays this role straight and to the point from an acting standpoint as well as in his vocal approach. His expressive baritone is rough and tough when he needs to intimidate, but that vocal authority weakens during his almost pathetic attempts to seal the romantic deal with Minnie.

Unfortunately for Rance and the rest of her would-be-suitors, Minnie is, like any virtuous lady saloon keeper, saving herself for Mr. Right. But in this story, Mr. Right turns out pretty much to be Mr. Wrong, a misunderstood desperado named Ramerrez who’s masquerading as an itinerant adventurer named Dick Johnson, a multifaceted role sung with aplomb by tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones.

Dick Johnson (Gwyn Hughes Jones) has been shot and Minnie (Patricia Racette) tries to save him. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)
Dick Johnson (Gwyn Hughes Jones) has been shot and Minnie (Patricia Racette) tries to save him. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

In truth, “Johnson” and his co-conspirators are actually in town to case the joint and formulate a plot to steal the local prospectors’ horde of gold, the bulk of which Minnie keeps safe for them in the saloon’s back room. Dick strikes up a conversation with Minnie to scope out the situation.

But in an unexpected twist for the desperado, Minnie falls as hard for Johnson as he does for her, much to the chagrin of Rance. The sheriff has actually been pursuing the wily and mysterious Ramerrez and his gang to administer rough frontier justice and gain the reward for his capture.

Minnie (Patricia Racette) engages Jack Rance (Mark Delavan) in a high stakes game of poker for Dick Johnson's life. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)
Minnie (Patricia Racette) engages Jack Rance (Mark Delavan) in a high stakes game of poker for Dick Johnson’s life. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

Things reach a climax in Act III when the now-exposed Johnson-Ramerrez is about to be lynched, though not before singing this opera’s one true aria, “Ch’ells mi creda libero e lontano” (roughly, “Let her believe I’ve broken free and am now far away”).

Not to worry, though. (Spoiler alert!) Perhaps due in part to that wondrous aria—sung with great heart and passion by Mr. Hughes Jones—the tables are turned in the final scene. Out of all Puccini’s major operas, this is the only one that concludes with a more or less happy ending.

The boys are out to hang Dick Johnson-Ramerrez in the final scene of "Girl of the Golden West." (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)
The boys are out to hang Dick Johnson-Ramerrez in the final scene of “Girl of the Golden West.” (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

Santa Fe Opera’s “Girl of the Golden West” is for the most part a wonderful, colorful production that no Puccini lover should miss. Ms. Racette, Mr. Delavan and Mr. Hughes Jones tuck into each of this opera’s key roles with relish and enthusiasm bringing the story home with the kind of vocal passion and sincerity that Puccini’s music always demands.

At key moments, the company’s male chorus turns in a rousing performance as well, enhancing this production’s energy and enthusiasm by an order of magnitude.

Likewise, the SFO orchestra’s beautiful, sweeping cascades of luscious accompaniment carried the singers and the story along almost in the manner of the sweeping, symphonic Hollywood movie scores that were still yet to come. This presentation was first-class all the way.

A brickbat, though, for the production’s scenic design by Miriam Buether, which seemed to have arisen fully-formed from the operatic “What Were They Thinking?” Department. Ms. Buether’s Act I set, Minnie’s “Polka Saloon,” is an odd and terribly cramped amalgam of corrugated metal roofing, pre-manufactured wooden slats and neon lights, a bizarrely anachronistic performance space for a California Gold Rush-themed opera set firmly somewhere in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Likewise, Minnie’s house, too, is tiny and cramped, although somewhat more believable in a time when individual frontier homes were frequently as small as today’s trendy “tiny houses.” The only time this production seemed to stretch out, physically, was in the final stanza staged in and around the relatively spacious setting of the U.S. marshal’s office.

The main problem here is the feeling of claustrophobia generated by these generally too-close spaces—the antithesis of the great-out-of-doors feeling we usually expect in any Western-themed entertainment, particularly one taking place against a desert-dry backdrop, the kind of natural scenery we saw, as we’ve noted elsewhere, in the opening scene of SFO’s “Don Giovanni.”

Read also: Santa Fe Opera’s ominously fatalistic ‘Don Giovanni’

Given that this “Fanciulla” is a co-production with the English National Opera and its completely different performance space, perhaps these sets marked a necessary compromise. Still, though, the whole setting seemed a bit disappointing. The one redeeming factor: the close to front and center stage rooms and scenery kept the singers close, and the boxy buildings and rooms very likely reflected the sound better than any deeper or open sight might have done.

Aside from this visual failing, however, Santa Fe Opera’s current production of “Girl of the Golden West” is as good a production as one is likely to see, given its accomplished and distinguished cast, expert young chorus, and wonderful orchestral playing under Mr. Villaume. We frankly enjoyed the whole performance and think you will, too.

Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Tickets and information: Season (five operas) packages may still be available. Single ticket prices for each opera this season range from $32 to $225. All operas this month begin at 8 p.m., and the 2016 season concludes on Aug. 26, 2016. For more complete information including directions, individual performance dates and tickets, visit the Santa Fe Opera site here, or call the Box Office Monday through Saturday (in season) between 9 and 5 Mountain Daylight Time at 505-986-5900 (local) or 800-280-4654.

Additional notes: If you haven’t attended the opera here before, watch the skies, bring an umbrella when appropriate and, for the ladies in particular, include an extra wrap. Santa Fe and environs may be in the desert, but it can cool off considerably in the evening. As it’s “monsoon season” in the American southwest, the weather can also get surprisingly stormy in late afternoons and early evenings.

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