While composed within a European style, La Fanciulla del West is an opera that manages to present a distinctly American experience. And, as demonstrated in a recent, disappointing production by Apotheosis Opera, Puccini’s characters thrive within the open range of the American frontier, exploring the emotional dynamics located between arrival and departure, and the unexpected transformations one finds therein.
Based on the play by David Belasco, The Girl of the Golden West, the opera is remarkable in that it manages the difficult accomplishment of being equally nuanced and bombastic, examining the overwhelming sweep of erotic discovery in a manner that maintains a complex emotional pitch. And while it might be easy to dismiss the libretto (sung at this performance in an English translation by Kelley Rourke) as one-dimensional, Puccini’s stirring music invigorates the text, creating an emotional terrain of melancholy and optimism. The opera is an overtly affecting experience, though difficult to qualify critically.
The plot tracks a complicated romance between the pious and lonely, though fiercely independent, Minnie and the morally damaged Dick Johnson, all against the backdrop of the California frontier. Minnie is the owner of the Polka Saloon, an establishment patronized by a group of miners on The Cloudy Mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. A lone female figure within a homosocial milieu, Minnie plays Wendy to a group of lost boys, at once maternal and nurturing, yet simultaneously the focus of deferred sexual attention.
The patrons of Minnie’s bar live within the
taught taut tensions of the past and the future, longing for the homes they’ve left behind in the gold rush, while dreaming toward possible fortune. Within this emotionally charged space lies the capacity for self-invention; and, it is here that Minnie encounters Dick Johnson, AKA Ramirez, a bandit who steals in order to feed his family.
By pitting two distinct characters against one another (female piety and rogue masculinity), the opera’s plot allows one to see the price of redemption, as well as the thorny moral complexity germane to it. Spurred on by her isolation, and her desire to experience love, Minnie’s longing for Dick Johnson is an emotionally costly entanglement, and her willingness to risk her own wellbeing for the sake of his allows her to surface as an unexpected Christ figure.
That we believe this unique apotheosis (pun intended) relies heavily on the craftsmanship of Puccini, whose music enables a divine transformation to occur. However, a great deal also lies within the purview of the opera’s performers.
Unfortunately, Apotheosis Opera’s recent production, running this weekend at El Museo del Barrio in the Upper East Side, failed to meet the standards set by Puccini. Disappointingly sung and insensitively conducted, the opera’s disparate elements failed to coalesce into a workable machine.
The major drawback, by far, was the unwieldy orchestra, conducted by Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, which frequently overpowered the singers. While Puccini’s orchestration is quite resounding, it still does not give one license to exploit this element at the cost of the music’s drama, or the singers’ voices.
Admittedly, the theater’s poor acoustics may have caused this unacceptable error. However, if this were the case, then the maestro might have been more responsive to these conditions, and reined in the orchestra’s dynamics. The result was that the singers were often rendered inaudible, especially at key moments in the opera’s plot, where the music is amped up to heighten the drama.
However, this inaudibility might also lie, in part, with the poor vocal production of the singers. Certainly, the role of Minnie is no easy task: a versatile, singing actress with a voice that can cut through heavy orchestration. Regrettably, Stacey Stofferahn, as the eponymous girl of the golden west, possessed a vocally diffused soprano, stripped of color and brilliance. On the other hand, to her credit, she managed to finish the evening with her voice intact, despite the oppressive conducting of Jaroszewicz—this accomplishment alone was impressive.
As her lover, Dick Johnson, Nicholas Simpson’s tenor was technically inept for the demanding role, resulting in an uneven performance that often sagged out of tune. His “Ch’ella mi creda” was especially disheartening, lacking the vocal brilliance required of such emotionally fraught material.
In the supporting role of Jack Rance, John Dominick III was more reliable than the leading lovers, though his baritone seemed to require a bit more oomph. Moreover, his acting provided an atmospheric, slow-burning menace—this was most notably apparent during the second-act card scene, in which Minnie’s future hangs in the balance.
The production, helmed by Lucca Damilano was perfunctory at best, and awkward at worst. With a visually interesting, anachronistic set, designed by Michelangelo Zaragoza, the direction was stripped down to its barest bones. This, in itself, was not a problem; however, the evening wanted of a sense of dramatic commitment to the scenarios in which the characters find themselves. For example, when Minnie and Dick bed down for the evening separately, Simpson reclined like a Greek god on a short bed, and Minnie, nestled on her knees, rested her head on Dick’s feet—the unreality of it all was difficult to swallow.
However, the performance’s drawbacks could not impair the force of Puccini’s score, which still moved me despite the evening’s handicaps. And perhaps that alone is reason enough to recommend seeing Apotheosis’ La fanciulla del West. Honestly, I was happy to have attended the performance. But, instead of remembering Apotheosis’ production fondly, I find myself looking, like Minnie and Dick, to the future, and other possibilities.
Photo by Matthew Kipnis.
Our Own JJ takes a slightly more sanguine view in the Observer.