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Puccini, The Girl of the Golden West: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of  Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago, 22.1.2011 (JLZ)


Stage Director: Vincent Liotta

Original Production: Harold Prince

Original Set Designer: Eugene Lee

Original Costume Designer: Franne Lee

New Scenery and Costumes:  Scott Marr

Lighting Designer: Jason Brown

Chorus Master: Donald Nally
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis

Handsome: Paul La Rosa

Harry: René Barbrea

Joe: James Kryshak

Happy: Paul Scholten

Nick: David Cangelosi

Sid: Philip Kraus

Sonoa: Daniel Sutin

Trin: David Portillo

Jim Larkens: Corey Crider

Jake Wallace: Paul Corona

Jack Rance: Marco Vratogna

Ashby: Craig Irvin

Minnie: Deborah Voigt

Pony Express Rider: Javier Bernardo

Ramerrez (Dick Johnson): Marcello Giordani

José Castro: Sam Handley

Wowkle: Katherine Lerner

Billy Jackrabbit: Evan Boyer

The Act III Set - Picture © Dan Rest

At its centenary, Puccini's 1910 opera La fanciulla del West has been offered by several companies, and this season Lyric Opera of Chicago revived its 1978 production, which involved Hal Prince. (His production of the composer's Madama Butterfly remains part of the company’s repertoire.) For this presentation, the efficient, clam shell-like set that allows the exterior of the saloon The Polka open to its interior—paralleling Minnie's cabin—immediately conveys the setting in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century. The ample fly space allows a depiction of the Sierra in the background, and the large house accommodated the ensemble scenes beautifully, especially in the first and third acts.

Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt - Picture © Dan Rest

For this revival Lyric features two principals who are known for their Fanciulla performances: Deborah Voigt as Minnie and Marcello Giordani as the bandit Ramerrez (whom Minnie loves as Dick Johnson). But the production provided ample opportunities for other fine singers as well, and the Lyric’s Chorus; in the atmospheric first act, the men were highly effective, with clear diction and fine intonation. Not only did they create a solid foundation, but they gave the audience the chance to hear some current and past members of the company’s noted Ryan Opera Center program.


As Nick the bartender, David Cangelosi anchored the scene, and his continuous movement was a welcome addition to the sometimes static imagery. As the plot advanced (that is, the search for the bandit Ramerrez) the exchanges were sometime difficult to hear, particularly the interactions between the sheriff, Jack Rance, sung by Marco Vratogna, and the Wells Fargo agent Ashby, portrayed by Craig Irvin. Yet Deborah Voigt's entrance—with her firing of a pistol—immediately shifted the action to the rivalry for the hand of her character, Minnie. Here Vratogna conveyed a Scarpia-like longing ("Minnie, dalla mia casa"), which Voigt counterbalanced with her response in "Laggiù nel Soledad." Vratogna sometimes emphasized the parlando delivery, which gave a sense of the text, but occasionally at the expense of the line. At times in the first act Voigt's pitches were compromised by the orchestra, with some straining also evident in the tutti passages. When Marcello Giordani made his entrance as Ramerrez, he immediately commanded attention with his stage presence and powerful voice. Sometimes his volume was out of balance, which could be attributed to the blocking, but this is a role he does well.


In the second act (the meeting between Ramerrez and Minnie at her cabin, where Rance eventually apprehends Ramerrez), the principals sounded more at ease. Voigt made her arietta "Oh, se sapeste" convey her character's situation with appropriate emotion. The rapport between Voigt and Giordani added to the overall effect, effectively setting up the threatening nature of Rance's character. In the third act, when Rance ultimately captures Rammerez and Minnie saves him, the chorus completed the scene with a vivid reading.


Modern audiences will notice Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed an idea from Fanciulla for his musical Phantom of the Opera for "The Music of the Night." The dramaturgy bears similarities, too, drawing on the popular Western, the saloon girl with a heart of gold, the bandit who wants to reform, and the sheriff whose commitment to justice becomes an obsession worthy of Melville's Captain Ahab. At the same time some stereotypes are evident in this production, such as the costuming and position of Minnie's servant Wowkle (played by Katherine Lerner) as a 1950s television Indian, with papoose and wigwam, elements that may benefit from reconsideration. On the other hand, other ideas are charming, like Minnie’s entrance as a dea ex machina on a railroad car in lieu of a horse.


However, the volume of the orchestra sometimes intruded on the voices, including both the leading soloists and, from time to time, the chorus. It is good to hear the score played with such enthusiasm, but the challenge is to allow it to illuminate the text, which was sometimes compromised by the acoustics. The playing was nonetheless fine, with good pacing on the part of the conductor, Sir Andrew Davis.

James L. Zychowicz


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