Wexford Festival Opera 2018 Review: La Fanciulla Del West
Elisabetta Farris Shines In Puccini’s MasterpieceBy Alan Neilson
While the music of “La Fanciulla del West” would be difficult to mistake for anyone other than Puccini’s, the actual drama lacks the usual sacrificial or torturous death of the heroine, which characterizes his other famous operas. In fact, it is the woman who his cast in the role of savior, riding in to rescue the man she loves from the scaffold, and then riding off into the sunset. Its ending is unambiguously happy, again so unlike Puccini.
Having said all this, it still possesses Puccini’s trademark dollops of sentimentality and his heavy-handed manipulation of the audience’s emotions. It was also the opera Puccini, himself, considered to be his greatest work, and it is the opera which Wexford Festival Opera decided to present as the third in its “Opera Shorts” programme.
The director for this shortened version of “La Fanciulla Del West” was Brenda Harris, who did an excellent job in creating the aggression, camaraderie and competitive atmosphere of the all-male environment, set during the 19th century Californian gold rush. Violence and the threat of violence were always near to the surface, and Harris did not flinch from portraying it in its most brutal forms.
When Rance’s boys gave Dick Johnson a good beating, the stubbing out of a cigarette on his neck added an extra element of viciousness and realism to the scene. Harris’ scene management convinced throughout, the one exception being from Act two when Minnie is attempting to hide Johnson from Rance’s posse, which descended into the almost comical, reminiscent of a scene from “Falstaff.” The final scene, however, in which the stage was dominated by a hanging noose, was simple and effective.
The scenery and costumes were designed Angela Giulia Toso. Although there is only a limited scope for creating scenery beyond rudimentary designs, Toso’s sets were reasonably successful in recreating the saloon and Minnie’s cabin, using recognizable swing doors, wooden walls, bar tables and so on, cluttered with bottles of whisky, glasses, tin kettles, candles and other paraphernalia easily connected with the Wild West.
The final act, set in an open clearing relied on an open stage with minimal props. The scenes were wonderfully enhanced by Johann Fitzpatrick’s imaginative lighting which used dark purplish-blue colors in the indoor scenes contrasted with lighter shades in the hanging scene. Costumes were excellent, perfectly attuned to the period and successfully created to define the characters.
A True Heroine
The only female role of any substance is that of Minnie, who was played by the Italian soprano, Elisabetta Farris. Apart from some initial nerves when she first appeared on stage, in which her singing was very uneven, she put in a strong, energetic performance, and produced a vivacious and expressive portrayal.
She is vocally secure across the range, with a particularly pleasing upper register. Her voice displayed a high degree of flexibility, which allowed her to infuse the vocal line with variety of emotions. Farris backed up her singing with a solid acting performance; her ability to manage the attention of the men drinking in the bar, and her determination to keep Rance at bay were suitably essayed and totally convincing.
Inconsistent Male Leads
As Sherrif Jack Rance, Craig Irvin, was very impressive. Stylishly dressed in black, his presence dominated the stage. He acted the role with such conviction that it would be impossible to doubt the malevolence of his intentions.
Vocally, however, his performance was a little inconsistent. On the positive side, Irvin has a strong baritone with an interestingly colored timbre, which he successfully used to characterize Rance’s sinister nature. He sang with confidence, coated with a vocal swagger that gave him the necessary authority to convince in the role.
The exchanges with Farris were one of the high points of the production, with their clash in Act two especially impressive; defiance and aggression, lust, frustration and hatred were wonderfully captured in what were two emotionally expressive performances.
However, there was an occasional tendency for his voice thin. In total, however, Irvin produced a very convincing portrait of the corrupt sherrif.
Dick Johnson, the bandit, was essayed by Richard Shaffrey. Unfortunately, he was unable to bring the necessary conviction to the role; he was just too nice. Yet, he is certainly not without ability, his singing exhibited a good technique, and his voice has a pleasing timbre, if a little on the light side. This was most observable in his exchanges with Minnie, which Ferris dominated. Like Ferris, however, he did improve, delivering his lines with a greater degree of expressivity and emotional involvement as the performance progressed.
Of the minor roles, two singers caught the eye: the bass, Jack Sandison, as Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, showed off the attractive timbre of his voice, with his well-crafted phrasing; the tenor Jose De Eca, playing the barman, Nick, put in a notable performance.
The piano accompaniment was supplied by Giorgio D’Alonzo, who produced a dramatic interpretation, sensitively attuned to the needs of the singers.
Overall, this was a solid production, which captured the atmosphere of the male-dominated environment, as well as the dramatic impetus which drives the narrative forward. The singing was generally of a good standard, despite its minor weaknesses.