La Fanciulla del West, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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La Fanciulla del West
(The Girl of the Golden West)

Salvatore Licitra and Deborah Voigt in San Francisco Opera’s “La Fanciulla del West”
Photo by Cory Weaver

By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini
After the play by David Belasco
San Francisco Opera
June 9-July 2, 2010
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti

In a cute bit of advertising, the San Francisco Opera is billing its current production of “The Girl of the Golden West” as “the original spaghetti western.” And that it may well be. But “The Girl,” or “Fanciulla” as she is known in Italian, is a whole lot more. Principally the possessor of one of the most tuneful, although not one of the most popular, scores Puccini ever penned. Not above borrowing from himself, the composer lets us hear echoes of “Tosca” in the chords that open the work and in the music of the slimy sheriff – definitely a Scarpia figure – as he gloats over the defeat of his rival for the heroine’s love. I caught echoes of “Turandot” as the gold miners chorus over the same victory. Under the baton of San Francisco’s new music director, Nicola Luisotti, and with a cast of terrific singers, what could be bad?

The plot is your typical operatic potboiler but, instead of kings and queens and gods and goddesses, here you get miners and outlaws and lawmen and the girl they all love. Minnie (Deborah Voigt, a trifle miscast although in her usual fine voice) runs the Polka Saloon in a rough mining camp high in the Sierras. She is alternately a mother, nurse, teacher and sister to the men – even if they wish she was something else. Jack Rance, the sheriff (Roberto Frontali), is set on making her his but Minnie, a slightly over-aged virgin, is equally determined to hold out for true love. Enter Dick Johnson, actually the dread bandit Ramerrez in disguise. Beautifully sung by Salvatore Licitra who, upon his debut some years back, was hailed as “the new Pavarotti” only to disappoint over time, Johnson is easily the best thing about this very good production. Although superstar Voigt is the big draw, it is the bandit who steals the show. His big aria at the end was thrilling. Perhaps that Pavarotti description is not so far off after all, except Licitra seems to have developed some real acting chops – which, alas, the late Luciano never had.

There is a posse to hunt the bandit down, a little bit of shooting and a riveting poker game between Minnie and the sheriff in which the bandit’s life and her virtue are at stake. (Minnie wins but she cheats.) And even a horse. Always an iffy proposition in the theater, the equine component is somewhat traditional in this work as Minnie gallops in at the last moment to save her lover from the hangman’s noose. However the horse in question, although a beauty, looks less like a Western breed than the elegant carriage horse he really is. And rather than gallop in, Voigt is led in (and helped off) by the animal’s handlers. My advice: forget the tradition and lose the horse.

The set is a stunner. Sheer rock faces flank the stage and, as the curtain goes up, men are hanging suspended, their pickaxes digging for ore. Later, the rock walls will turn white in a snowstorm (scenic designer Maurizio Balò). Bravi to the men of the San Francisco Opera Chorus for their beautiful singing and to the orchestra musicians who delivered Puccini’s soaring harmonies in high style. “The Girl of the Golden West” may not have Clint Eastwood, but it’s a pretty good spaghetti western nevertheless. You might want to catch it before it rides into the sunset.

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