W.A.Opera Company and Chorus
His Majesty’s Theatre
reviewed by Millie Schuman
Dario Volente. photographer: James Rogers
Compared to the dizzying amounts of money that go towards the running of the nation’s flagship opera company in Sydney, most of the provincial opera houses scattered around the country are obliged to do their best to mount worthwhile performances on the equivalent of a frayed shoe string. Yet, decade in and decade out, opera goers in smaller Australian cities are offered seasons that somehow defy fiscal logic to produce handsome performances using the very best local talent that modest monies can afford and importing the occasional singer from interstate or abroad.
It would have been a calculated risk on the part of the West Australian Opera Company to mount this production in the sense that it is a significant departure from its more usual, safe-as–we-go, policy of offering sure box office hits such as Carmen, La Traviata, La Boheme and Marriage of Figaro.
If, as I’ve been told, Fanciulla del West has never been mounted here before, then this rarely heard opera has arrived here 99 years after its premiere in the US in 1910.
Unlike Puccini’s many, more frequently encountered, operas, Fanciulla is almost totally devoid of memorable melody with virtually none of the inbuilt aria allure of, say, Puccini’s La Boheme, Turandot and Butterfly. But in dramatic terms, it packs a knockout punch and it is greatly to the credit of the WAOC that this crucial dimension of the performance was present to such a high degree.
Star of the evening was Argentinian tenor Dario Volonte as the Mexican bandit masquerading as Dick Johnson. Blessed with a supple, agile, finely trained voice, he was a joy to hear. He seems incapable of an ugly sound. That, allied to a convincing stage presence, made his performance memorable.
No less significant a player in this doomed scenario was John Summers as Sheriff Jack Rance, as thoroughly nasty a villain as one could ever encounter in opera. Clad in black, with a character to match, Summers gave a wonderful portrayal of the sinister Rance. Wearing his unpleasantness like an invisible cloak, he portrayed Rance as if to the manner born.
Can there ever have been a stranger Bible class than that in the Polka Saloon in Act 1 with Minnie presiding over a remarkably orderly collection of miners, cowboys, assorted toughs and ruffians as students? Rather charmingly (and improbably), this scene has flashes of comedy; it’s the light relief that throws the ugliness of characters like Rance into bolder relief.
Fanciulla has often been slammed by American critics. I dare say that some of this ire stems from a silly parochialism, a belief that no one other than a true blue American should set an opera in the Wild West. Yet, no one has ever done it more imaginatively in the genre than Puccini. Its plotline boils down to a variant on the eternal triangle theme. Minnie – in an environment where there are virtually no other women – becomes a constant focus of fascination and desire on the part of the rough and ready crowd that patronises her establishment. Rance and Johnson are both infatuated with Minnie and the tensions between the three are skillfully exploited by the composer – and the three principals were almost beyond reproach in the playing out of the story. Vocally and theatrically, they came up trumps again and again.
Consistently in character, not least in conveying the tense rivalry between bandit and sheriff, this was memorable music theatre. Throughout, Anke Hoppner was vocally impressive as Minnie.
Many in the opera chorus, in their long, all-weather coats and akubra-type headgear, looked as if they might have been mates of The Man from Snowy River.
It was at times problematical to identify characters playing smaller roles, what with their sometimes luxuriant beards and moustaches, a task made more difficult due to often rather dim lighting which, I hasten to add, was entirely appropriate in generating a sense of locale and time.
Stuart Laing as the archetypal innkeeper, Tom Wood as Joe, James Clayton as the Wells Fargo man and Andrew Foote as the captured bandit Jose came across convincingly in smaller but significant roles, as did the snappily dressed David Dockery as Sid who narrowly averts being lynched for cheating at cards.
The all-purpose Act 1 set, cleverly lit, established and emphasized atmosphere. Occasionally, the set resembled a claustrophobic, concentration camp interior with an eerie – possibly inadvertent? – simulation of barbed wire. Clever use of projected period images also did a great deal to establish period and place. Indeed, the visual aspect of the production very substantially contributed to the overall impact of the production.
Puccini calls for a big orchestra and the WASO sounded very much on its mettle, with Aldo Salvagno doing wonders in setting meaningful, workable tempi and extracting a host of Puccinian subtleties from his forces.