The production of “La Fanciulla del West” that has landed in the somewhat unlikely venue called Jazz at Lincoln Centre — but really is the Rose Theater at the Time Warner Centre – would be notable for a number of reasons.
It signals the opening of the second season of the reborn New York City Opera. Great news for someone like me who attended decades of amazing operas at NYCO’s former home, the New York State Theater, seeing performances such as Samuel Ramey’s “Mefistofele” in Boito’s rarity, or even more rare, Korngold’s “Die Todt Stadt.”
And that’s not even getting started on the reign –literally — of Beverly Sills, a New York icon and ultimately a national treasure.
So, a second season from the reborn company! And how can one feel anything but anticipation?
Then there is the opening work, “La Fanciulla del West.” While probably not in the rare category, it certainly receives less attention than the Puccini staples such as “La Bohème,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca.” For its partisans – of which I count myself as one — it has some extraordinary music, and moments that put the “drama” squarely into that oft-used phrase “music drama.”
That said, how was this production?
If you will – since this is a company rebuilding itself — I will start with the base and work my way up.
The physical set is a co-production of Teatro di Giglio (Lucca, Italy), the Teatro Lirico (Cagliari, Sardinia) and Opera Carolina.
The stage elements are somewhat minimal. Log risers, benches, tables for Faro (a mining camp card game staple), a bar for the, well, bar…and a multi purpose log staircase that serves as the entry point for Minnie with her rifle (nice and loud by the way!) as well as the Act three hangman’s gallows for Ramerrez, aka “Dick Johnson.”
All of which though works wonderfully in the space of the Rose Theater. But the background also continually changes, with a variety of photographic images of the Sierras in winter, realistic and atmospheric imagery that reinforces the setting of the mining camp circa 1840s.
The projected backdrops are also used to good effect during the poker scene – showing kings, queens and the all-important aces — as Minnie plays (and cheats) to save her lover-thief.
And the backdrop works even more powerfully as the Ashby’s posse — shadows with rifles — closes in on Ramerrez.
And the staging and direction? Having seen over forty years of acting in opera, I have noted how things – acting-wise — have changed, and that change was well on display in this “Fanciulla.”
The chorus was realistic, completely and engagingly in character. The fight scenes, dramatic and visceral. At once intimate and epic, the staging had the feel and often the dramatic heft of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”
And the singing of the chorus of miners, in the excellent acoustics of the Rose, seemed just perfect, and totally robust. The scene where the miner Jim Larken (Darren K. Stokes) is rendered homesick by the sung remembrances of “home,” was touching in a way that — on larger, less well-directed tableaux — could have been merely comic.
So solid kudos to Stage Director, Ivan Stefanutti. His staging is well aided by the warm lighting of Michael Baumgarten, a nice contrast to the icy winds and billowing stage snow.
Leading the Way
And finally — the lead singers you ask? Our Minnie, Jack, and “Dick?”
As said, for this review I am working from the bottom up, much as I imagine the new NYCO is.
And the singing by the three leads was all you ask for.
Kevin Short as Jack Rance had a velvety tone, a rich timbre that rendered his character of the lovelorn sheriff real, and even sympathetic – again, with a character that could definitely tilt towards caricature. His singing and acting made the card scene with his Minnie electric– even if we know the outcome.
Kristin Sampson was immediately endearing as Minnie and commanded the stage — and the chorus among so many rowdy miners with handguns. So much so, that when we get to her final attempt to save her lover, we can easily see why the miners would view her as sister and friend.
As she enumerates all she has done for them and they turn their guns away from keeping Ramerrez on the gallows, to the Wells Fargo agents instead, it’s a very real, emotional moment. (And great presence and singing here by Alexander Elliot’s “Sonora.”)
And when Puccini’s score calls for her to turn from endearing to fierce, her voice bloomed – powerful and thrilling, especially in the Act two duet with her “Dick Johnson.”
All the moments that she is called to own — especially in Act two and three — she does. Sampson also brings humor and sweetness in the quieter scenes such as her banter with her servant, Wonkle (Nice work there too by Hyona Kim).
And throughout, Sampson displayed a major dramatic voice well matched the intensity of the story and music. Let’s hope she remains central to the “new” company.
And then there is the thief himself, Dick Johnson.
One can’t see this opera without thinking of that role’s originator, Caruso. Missed that one. But Jonathan Burton provided, by my count, a good number of full-on goose-bump moments.
Having myself been introduced to the art form by way of a Corelli’s Calaf at the Met, such ringing, powerful singing by a tenor, in a smaller theater is a treasure. A gift.
Burton definitely deserves even more, especially in roles that will also use his strong, clear and wonderfully ringing voice.
Interestingly, the orchestra pit is sunken. You might say Broadway fashion or as I preferred to think — having experienced it — Bayreuth. From said pit, led by Opera Carolina’s James Meena, the orchestra’s strings shimmered, the timpani rumbled, the brass in the card game were bright and shattering.
If an opera like this has a foundation, it’s the orchestra, with its mixed demands of Debussy-like quiet one moment, and Wagnerian explosions the next. The challenges here were all met wonderfully.
With a wind machine rattling from off stage (and behind us), the NYCO orchestra sailed over it all.
In sum, the performance was a great night in the”Golden West” and a great night of opera.
Am I hopeful?
For the NYCO’s future?
You bet I am…