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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Puccini, La Fanciulla del West, soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera, 1.10.2005 (BK)



The Polka Saloon (Act I)

Kenneth Adam's refurbished sets for Royal Opera's seventh revival of their 1977 production of La Fanciulla, wear very well after almost thirty years; they're elaborate, naturalistic and still take ages to change between the opera's three acts. Pietro Faggioni's direction, costumes and lighting plot feel quite fresh too, even though his reading is straightforward and fairly one-dimensional by today's reckoning. There's no tricksy deconstruction or multi-layered meaning here: this is a feel-good story about love and redemption.

Despite its lack of traditional show-stoppers, Puccini considered Fanciulla to be his new Bohème and recommended seeing it more than once to appreciate its subtleties. Thanks to Warner's DVD of the original ROH production (with Carol Neblett and Placido Domingo) that's much easier these days than it used to be, although comparisons between singers do become inevitable as a consequence. Domingo as Johnson / Ramerrez and Neblett (in her heyday then as Minnie ) were hard acts to follow and Nello Santi's conducting was very stylish too. After repeated playings of the disc though, it does turn out that Puccini was right: there's more to this score than first meets the ear.


José Cura (Johnson /Ramerrez) and Andrea Gruber (Minnie)

So far as singing goes, no-one need worry much about the soloists in the current revival. José Cura might still not be Domingo (who could?) but he was in top form on Saturday, easily fulfilling the early promise that he showed in the 1990's. He looked the part, sounded splendidly manly and simpatico throughout the whole thing and had all the notes necessary even for Act III's ' Che'lla mi creda libero..' His early training as a baritone still shows through though, now and again (there's a depth to his lower register which is decidely untenor-like occasionally) but if anything this simply added to his performance as Johnson: this was the kind of singing we go to Royal Opera to hear


Andrea Gruber was in good fettle too, but always at her best when raising a fair head of steam. Hers is a big voice, easily robust enough to cope with the not-inconsiderable demands of her role and if there were faults in her characterisation, they were more to do with the direction which (with the best will in the world) no-one could say is over-burdened with subtlety. Ms Gruber's Minnie was feisty right enough, but she didn't switch easily into being head over heels in love.


José Cura and Mark Delavan (Jack Rance)


Goodies and baddies, that's what we all want in opera, but Puccini and Belasco (his librettist) knew better. Yet if Johnson / Ramerrez is an honest chap who lapses and then repents, where does that leave Jack Rance, the firm but fair Sheriff smitten with Minnie? It's a difficult role dramatically - too bullying or sleazy and there's no contest for Minnie's affections - too kindly and he just ain't Heathcliffe enough, goldarnit. Marc Delavan (another big-voiced man) did everything that he could, but decided on rough, tough and a tad uncouth. He didn't get the girl of course, so settled for getting his man instead. Fine robust singing though.


It was gratifying to see two singers from the original production still holding their own wonderfully, Robert Lloyd as Ashby the Wells Fargo agent and Francis Egerton as Nick the Barkeep. Other fine sounds came from Jonathan Lemalu (Jake Wallace), Mark Stone (an imposing Sonora) and from former Young Artist, Grant Doyle (Bello). Anthony Pappano led his orchestra and chorus in performances that could hardly be bettered. This was a great night out all in all, so ' Whisky per Tutti' then.


Bill Kenny


Pictures © Catherine Ashmore

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