Friday, 1 August 2014

Opera Holland Park: La fanciulla del West

[From OPERA, August 2014, p. 1025]

La fanciulla del West
Opera Holland Park, June 19
With Aletta Collins’s Opera North production behind us, and Richard Jones’s at ENO in the autumn still to come, Opera Holland Park’s take on Puccini’s Western became the filling in a Fanciulla sandwich that the increasingly numerous fans of this great score will be keenly—if, perforce, slowly—devouring in 2014. I’m not sure the details of Stephen Barlow’s production will last long in the memory: his relocation and updating of the action to Las Vegas in 1951, with soldiers from the ‘Atomic Testing Camp’ taking the place of Belasco’s and Puccini’s miners, presents predictable inconsistencies and difficulties. The Polka bar becomes a room in a casino, with plenty of women around besides Minnie; Minnie’s special relationship to the men isn’t strongly established enough to give the final redemption the shred of plausibility it needs; Minnie herself becomes half Valkyrie, half Dolly Parton—a brightly-garbed, rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl  in the outer acts, arriving to save the day on the back of a Harley-Davison.

It’s often a bit silly, not least the sudden appearance, thanks to a clever lighting trick and a concealed door in a panoramic back panel (through which Minnie also makes her first appearance in Act 1), of an aeroplane and air-hostess to whisk the couple off into the sunset. But Yannis Thavoris’s designs display plenty of ingenuity, with a decent log cabin for Act 2 whose two walls were closed together to provide a feature for the final act, during which a rickety signpost also served as an optimistic improvised gallows.

Musically the performance I attended—with the young conductor Timothy Burke taking over from Stuart Stratford, who was in charge of the rest of the run—was highly persuasive. Burke drew sweeping, impassioned playing from a City of London Sinfonia on fine form, and clearly enjoying itself; the aching nostalgia and powerful vistas of the music came across with power. The principals made an impressive fist of their roles, too. Susannah Glanville’s soprano doesn’t have the steely power up top, but she nevertheless filled out Minnie’s phrases effectively, and produced a convincing character, despite the challenges imposed by the updating. Similarly, Jeff Gwaltney’s voice is some way off the Dick Johnson ideal, lacking the necessary robustness and heft, but he also managed to convince by clever employment of his resources, and excellent acting—matters weren’t harmed by the fact he looked the part, too. As Jack Rance, Simon Thorpe didn’t make quite as strong an impression as he might have, but he held up his part of the love triangle reliably.

Barlow, too, deserves praise for managing the large cast well, creating a tangible sense of community—among the secondary roles, Nicholas Garrett’s nuanced Sonora and Graeme Broadbent’s upstanding Ashby merit mention. As so often at Holland Park, though, it was the sense of a company giving a performance its all that made this Fanciulla so enjoyable and satisfying.

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