The presence of New York Metropolitan supremo, Peter Gelb at last night’s première of ENO’s new production of The Girl of the Golden West is probably explained by his wish to support Keri-Lynn Wilson, who was in charge of the baton for the evening, and who also happens to be his wife. If, however, he was also scouting for a new La fanciulla del West to borrow for New York, he will have been pleased to encounter no nasty surprises that might frighten the Met’s famously conservative audience in Richard Jones’ production of Puccini’s 1910 cowboy opera. (The alternative possibility that, in the wake of his recent trials and tribulations on the other side of the Atlantic, he might be about to interview for a new job never once crossed my mind. No, honestly, it didn’t.)

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Jones’ concept is a traditional and literal one, which places the focus squarely on the kaleidoscope of characters that populate Cloudy Mountain. It is a pity then that those occupying the principal roles were unable to take greater advantage of the dramatic opportunities this offered them; more about that later. Some moderate updating has been applied, and the action no longer takes place in the middle of the nineteenth century. Electric lighting has arrived, and some of the fittings have a jarringly 1950s feel about them. That anomaly aside, the clean, unfussy lines of Miriam Buether’s efficient sets, together with Nicky Gillibrand’s authentic costumes place the action unmistakably in the harsh, unforgiving environment of an early twentieth century frontier mining town.

Act 1’s Polka saloon resembles nothing less than a large functional scout hut, furnished with scout hut-quality chairs and tables, and a bar running the length of one side. Double doors at the back allow for the comings and goings of the miners, and glimpses of the relentlessly inclement weather; a small room on the right houses the safe; and a larger one – whose purpose is occasionally confusing – on the left operates as an overspill area. Lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin bathes everything in the pallid green light that emanates from the anachronistic neon tubes behind the bar – a metaphor for the acute homesickness with which many of the regulars are afflicted.

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Minnie’s house in Act 2 is a small, brightly-lit two-storey cabin, the front wall missing, a raging blizzard visible through its back window. With nothing but the pitch-blackness of the Coliseum’s vast stage bearing down on it from all sides, the bleak desolation of the surrounding landscape, though unseen, is a subliminally and oppressively omnipresent.

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In Act 3, the stage is filled by the long, low sheriff’s building. The wide window allows for a Vermeer-like perspective on the private conversations taking place in the warmly-illuminated interior, while the public business of beatings, lynching and, ultimately, reconciliation, take place outside in the cold air.

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So, all very conventional but also highly effective. Not many gimmicks either; just two in all. At the opening percussive crash of the orchestral introduction the auditorium is abruptly bathed in an explosion of white light that only dims once the singing commences. Its purpose is hard to discern, but it certainly gets the adrenaline flowing. Unfortunately, it also raises an expectation of further novelty that never materialises. Then, at the very end of the opera, one of the enduring clichés of the Western movie genre is turned on its head as the set itself rides off into the night, leaving the protagonists alone with their thoughts and absorbed in each other. A lovely coup de théâtre.

La fanciulla del West is atypical in the Puccini canon, in that the bulk of the melodic interest (and there is an abundance) belongs to the orchestra rather than the voices. With just one set piece that is regularly performed out of context – Dick Johnson’s baleful ‘Ch’ella mi creda’, sung in extremis in front of an improvised gallows in Act 3 – there are no show-stopping arias and duets. ‘Or son sei mesi’, Johnson’s desperate attempt in Act 2 to justify his actions to Minnie almost qualifies, as does – in the first act – ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito’, Jack Rance’s halting declaration of love for the golden girl. For the most part, the three principals are required to deliver a stream of constantly evolving arioso, interspersed with declamatory passages that border on the Wagnerian. For this to work, for it to sustain interest, for it to have the impact Puccini required, voices working optimally throughout their ranges are essential. It is therefore unfortunate that none of the three singers playing the main protagonists were able to rise fully to the composer’s demands.

The role of Minnie, the eponymous golden girl, is a multi-faceted one: feisty proprietress of the Polka saloon, able to control the rumbustious miners who are her clientele; bible teacher; mother figure; object of desire. Susan Bullock, making her stage debut in the role (she has previously performed it in concert) took up the challenge gamely, and was largely successful despite a disconcerting tendency to stop acting when she had nothing to sing. A little more adjustment to posture and gait would be helpful in shedding any vestiges of matronliness. The voice is still powerful and steely at the top, and capable of generating excitement when she has license to let rip, albeit with some occasional wildness and delay in phonation. Further down and at lower volumes, there is now less focus to the tone, as well as some breathiness. Inevitably, this results in a lack of penetration and a loss of line.

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As Dick Johnson (aka the bandit, Ramerrez), Peter Auty (another role debutant), has to battle with a voice that is simply not designed to cope with the demands of the verismo parts in which he is now being cast. Though more audible, thanks to the Coliseum’s superior acoustics, than in his recent outing as Maurizio in Holland Park’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the same problems are still all very much in evidence. He clearly understands what the role requires, and nobody could accuse him of not throwing himself heart and soul into his attempt to deliver it. The audience was patently appreciative of his efforts. However, passages of lovely tone in his middle register are suddenly marred by his tendency to allow the voice to recede into his throat, with an unavoidable reduction in the beauty of his vowels. At the big climaxes, where there should be a tenor’s trumpet tones, there is huge strain and loss of resonance. These episodes are regularly accompanied by the same repetitive gestures with his hands and arms, which give the appearance of his trying to coax the voice into responding as he would wish. A long stint in this repertoire would raise legitimate concerns for Mr Auty’s long-term vocal health. He is, however, a forceful stage presence, and throws himself into the physical demands of the role with conviction.

This is the European debut of American bass-baritone Craig Colclough, in the role of Jack Rance, Cloudy Mountain’s sheriff. Rance is more than just an unpleasant thug, yet that is the only side we really get to see of him. He has a sturdy, gritty voice that fills out impressively at the top. However, his over-reliance on snarling and growling (because that’s what bullies do) causes the tone to become bottled up in the middle of his range, and, in all probability, prevents a fine voice from being heard to its fullest advantage. Last night, Mr Colclough found himself at the centre of an unexpected and inexplicable moment of bathos – a rare misstep in the stage direction. The dramatic climax of the opera takes the form of a card game in which Minnie plays Rance at poker, with the life of the wounded Johnson as the stake. If she wins, he goes free; if she loses, he hangs and she must give herself to Rance. Puccini ratchets up the tension agonisingly in this scene, and the principals and orchestra give it everything they have in their lockers. At the crucial moment, with a triumphant shout of “Three aces and a pair”, Minnie throws the winning hand down (she has cheated, of course, but that’s Rance’s own fault for making the rookie mistake of allowing her to choose the deck while his back was turned) Having just lost everything, Rance politely got his hat, and left as though nothing much at all had happened. It was so jaw-droppingly jarring that laughter rippled around the auditorium. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, a chuckling audience at this juncture is a reasonable indication that something isn’t right. It’s a piece of business that needs to be sorted out before the next performance, as it unceremoniously wrecked the end of the act.

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Ultimately, the plaudits have to go to the ensembles on and below the stage. The chorus of miners is wonderfully full-voiced from start to finish, and switches effortlessly from sentimentality, through raucous jollity, to truly alarming violence as Johnson is given a fifteen-minute, no-holds-barred roughing-up in the final act. From its midst, the uniformly excellent smaller characters emerge. Particularly worthy of mention are the veteran tenor Graham Clark, as the wily barman, Nick, with a ringing voice that still commands attention; baritone George Humphries, whose beautifully sung ballad of nostalgia and loss in Act 1 is lent added poignancy by his obvious physical and emotional damage; Leigh Melrose’s mellifluous Sonora; Nicholas Masters’ authoritative Wells Fargo agent, Ashby; and Clare Presland who – as Wowkle – manages, in her brief time on stage, to pull off at least two scene-stealing moments.

In the pit, the orchestra is simply magnificent, producing huge washes of opulent tone, as well as finely detailed and precise playing. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts with great elasticity, maintains nigh on perfect synchronization with the stage, and is alive to every nuance of Puccini’s Wagner- and Debussy-influenced score. She seemed both surprised and delighted by the warmth of the applause at her curtain call. If, as some suspect, recent events at the Met will ultimately prove fatal to the tenure of its current General Manager, it’s good to know that the career of at least one half of the Gelb family is on an upward trajectory.

3 stars

Steve Silverman

(Photos : Robert Workman, from the ENO website)

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