Virginia Opera 2017-18 Review – La Fanciulla Del West: Baritone Mark Walters Leads Promising Cast in Triumphant Interpretation of Puccini Classic

(Credit: Virginia Opera)

A wise man of opera once said in my hearing, testifying to the enduring emotional impact of Puccini: “When I no longer cry at ‘Boheme,’ I quit.” The same should be said of “La Fanciulla del West,” from “Ch’ella mi creda” to the end – and so it is with Lillian Groag’s production that opened on Nov. 10 at the Virginia Opera in Norfolk, with performances to come through Dec. 3 in Richmond and Fairfax as well.

Consider the dramatic set-up: a heroine beloved of the local population; her tenor-hero love interest, and a baritone character who is the local law-man, loves the heroine, is none too pleased with the hero, and even has power to put him to death under color of law.

“Tosca,” right? Can’t deny it – but “Fanciulla,” which sits on the same basic platform, and was written ten years later, has major differences. The setting is California during the 1849 old Rush, so pretty much every character is there under some sort of duress: typically, they were poor back east, they came west to get rich, it’s taking longer than it should, and now they’re stuck, a long way from home. Only Minnie, the heroine – the local saloon-keeper and schoolmarm and Bible teacher – is a local.

Her relationship with the hero arises suddenly. She hopes it will fulfill her naive but family-derived dreams. For him, though he is slow to fess up to it, it shows him there is a human ideal beyond what he has (almost as suddenly) found himself to be: a highwayman, and leader-by-inheritance of a gang of highwaymen. He is an idealist like Cavaradossi, but without the whiff of limousine-radicalism. No one will ever call him “Cavalier’.” Named Ramirez (Ramerrez in the source-material and in the Met’s production), it’s hard enough for young R. to pull off the false identity by which he is known in the program book: Dick Johnson.

Digging Deep Into an Anti-Hero

But the biggest difference from the Maestro’s beloved Roman thunderbolt is the baritone “heavy.” Scarpia is every baritone’s dream, and every audience’s guilty pleasure. He impresses by his casual violence, his candid sensualism, his towering music, and depending on how one interprets “Tosca, mi fai dementicare Iddio!” perhaps his deep-down crisis of conscience. Sheriff Jack Rance – too often played as the cowboy Scarpia – is very different, at least in Ms. Groag’s extremely effective presentation. His duet with Minnie in Act I makes them both very vulnerable. They are clearly friends, he never lays a hand on her – in fact she lays an arm confidingly on his leg when reminiscing about her family – and they share their motivating family memories: her now-dead family right there in California; his, back east, which he describes only as loveless. His conscience is not suppressed: it’s pretty near the top.

No one makes the dangerous and life-changing journey west to become a sheriff: you can do that back in your east coast. So, if Jack is sheriff, he probably was not a successful miner. Or maybe he consented to take the sheriff job because the miners knew he’d be good at it. He is. As director Groag points out, the first thing we see him do is rescue miner Sid (James McClure, African-American, so Rance’s intervention to save may tell an extra story) from lynching, while still seeing to it that Sid is punished for cheating at cards. The penalty, which Rance pulls out of thin air, because law-men had to legislate in the Wild West, a lifetime ban from card-playing.

So Rance is a good man, with flaws. So are we all, Minnie teaches.

In the Virginia production, Rance’s essential justice, potential for (sub-Scarpian) fury, and capacity for noble resignation are all on display. Singing the part is Mark Walters, a Verdi baritone who is also checking out the darker and deeper side with roles like Pizarro, Wotan, and Sweeney Todd. His voice is everything an Italian-style baritone should be. Under Ms. Groag’s direction he is restrained with Minnie, but socks the hands-tied Ramirez in the jaw right after “Ch’ella mi creda.” As I saw it, it wasn’t a “Ma fatelo tacere” power trip: it was frustration at how the erstwhile bandit had outdone him in love for Minnie. To be sure, Rance had been taking liquid breakfast off the miners’s flasks, and was off peak at that point. But he did not stay that way.

As Minnie appears and pleads her case with the miners, reminding them of all the ways she has helped them, Rance is out of it, and knows it: he leans against the proscenium, far downstage, barely paying attention. Act three began with him lighting a cigar, the only light in the pre-dawn. With the opera’s soft final bars, the curtain comes down behind him. For a precious few seconds, he is alone with the audience, without even the rest of the opera behind him. And he lights another cigar, and slips away into the wings. No Wotan has ever begun his mountain descent at the end of “Die Walküre” more nobly, or in less musical or stage space.

Stars in the Making

Minnie was sung by Jill Gardner, in a Virginia Opera mainstage debut. Her voice is powerful and well-produced, even if still lacking that Tebaldian focus. Gardner’s is a real verismo voice, making it sound easy, and acting every moment. It is understandable that her bio contains raves for her Tosca. She has been through nearly all the Puccini heroines, though not yet Turandot, but I can’t imagine what will stop her. Her Liù is already on the books, and if there’s a soprano today who could work both sides of the Gong, she’s it.

Ramirez, he of the Dick Johnson (at one point in Act one, Rance pushes back his jacket to reveal his gun, and Ramirez does the same, revealing a much bigger gun. Pro-tip: If you’re Sheriff, have the biggest gun) was played by Roger Honeywell, an actor-turned-tenor. He took a while to warm up, and on his entrance I thought he would prove overparted. The voice is lyrical, yet his bio shows him moving into heavy rep, such as Captain Ahab.

A name that recalls cheerful Yale-man heroes of a century ago, and an Anglo appearance to go with it, are not a setback in this role, it turns out. Yes, Corelli used a painted-on thin mustache, and Domingo used his natural Latino looks, but as we’ve seen, the character is half-Spanish, half-Anglo, so why should he not look it? Honeywell rose to the demands of his arias. He gave us “Or son sei mesi” more in mourning than in anger. “Ch’ella” was show-stoppingly lovely, making it sad that audiences today, besides applauding too soon at the end of an act, have lost the tradition of applauding an aria in Italian opera. I tried yelling “Bravo” but was considered an isolated oddity.

Solid Sidekicks

Jake Wallace, the “minstrel of the camps,” potentially a great cameo was an otherwise impressive walk-on, as he “walks on” to the set of Minnie’s tavern, perhaps arriving from another camp and soon setting out to yet another, singing his songs. These songs are sad, full of weeping mothers back home.

In one production that you can find on YouTube, where they’ve set the action a hundred years ahead, they turn Jake into a radio: that is, when his solo starts, Nick the Bartender plunks a wireless set on the bar and turns up the volume. At VO he is as real as pickaxes and panhandles – and blind. Perhaps that is why he sings instead of mining. Like Samson, VO’s previous production this year, he is led by a boy – a little African-American guy, and he wears the opaque sunglasses that unsighted people wore some decades ago. The little boy passes the hat for him.

When Jake’s song leads homesick miner Larkens, played with dignity by Joseph Hubbard, 2016 Phyllis Curtin Award-winning bass, to lose it and resolve to go home, Jake pitches in, along with all the miners, to the spontaneous hat-based GoFundMe to ease Larkens’s journey. Jake’s song may have cost him as much as it earned him. Maybe he needs to learn “California Here I Come.”

Behind Jake’s shades was tall, gaunt bass Joshua Arky, a Met National Council Auditions finalist. On this opening night, he sounded a little uneven. But the part, though short, is a tad cruel: your one solo has to drip sentimentality; you have to start it while making your first entrance, early in the action; and by hailing you as “the minstrel,” Nick as good as says you’re going to sing better than any of the miners. If you happen not to on a given evening, it stands out. But Arky plainly has a voice, and lots of stage presence.

Nick this, Nick that – now let me tell you about Nick. The tenor singing this Piero de Palma role was Chris Carr, and the name rang a bell. When I studied him program bio, all became clear: I saw him three years ago at the Arizona Opera – as Eugene Onegin! This young man has made a thorough baritone-to-tenor transition. His present tenor roles are on the light side: Beppe, Dr. Caius, and the tenor soloist in Messiah. But I don’t recall his Onegin as at all lacking in baritonality. This is a real transition, and Carr clearly has some good teachers.

The most prominent of the miners is probably Sonora, the one who in Act one is the first to take up a going-home fund for Larkens, and who in Act three insists Ramirez has a right to say his piece before they string him up, leading another miner (in this production) to call out “E giusto!” Virginia’s Sonora is Joseph Lattanzi, a young baritone of strong voice and presence who created the role of State Department official Hawkins Fuller in Virginia native Greg Spears’s “Fellow Travelers,” and will  return to Virginia for Demetrius in Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” next spring. He has sung Don Giovanni, but in “Sweeney Todd (in Atlanta later this season)” his role is Anthony, not the title character. He has the brightness of tone to pull it off.

Ashby, the Wells Fargo man working with Rance in frontier-justice pursuit of the Ramirez gang, was sung and acted with authority by bass Jake Gardner, husband of heroine Jill, and Virginia’s Judge Turpin last year.

This gifted cast and the local orchestra were brought together by conductor Andrew Bisantz, Artistic Director of the Eugene OR Opera. His range there as a conductor runs from Mozart to new, but he seems to have a penchant for bel canto and verismo. The orchestra played brilliantly for him, and he brought out all of Puccini’s sentiment without going over the top. I’ve never heard the first fiddles in “Ch’ella” weep more eloquently.

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About the Author

David Wagner

David Wagner – son of “Living Opera” host and Met Quiz guest Alan Wagner – is a writer, lawyer, and teacher based in northern Virginia but “raised at the Met.” His opera reviews have appeared in Classical Singer and The City Journal.

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