Tag Archives: Fanciulla Del West

La Fanciulla del West (Puccini)

W.A.Opera Company and Chorus

W.A.Symphony Orchestra

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Millie Schuman

goldenwest-245 copy

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.

150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth


by Neville Cohn


Violent sex, rowdy, late-night booze-ups with his card playing mates, driving powerful cars – and expensive motor boats – at breakneck speed as well as composing some of the most loved operas in the repertoire. This was Puccini. But when little Giacomo came into the world in the Italian town of Lucca 150 years ago on  22 December 1858, he was destined for a life as church musician as five generations of Puccinis had been before him in their home town. But the young Giacomo was to achieve much greater things.


He wasn’t an attractive personality; he was self-centred in the extreme – and he certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. He’d often say in later life: “I am a mighty hunter of wild fowl, beautiful women and good libretti”.


His huge opinion of himself armoured him against many vicissitudes although he was shaken by the negative response of the audience at the premiere of Madame Butterfly which bombed big time. Ever-feisty, he exchanged insults with outraged opera goers who hissed and booed at the first ever airing of that most loved of tear-jerkers. The critics also clobbered it. So, with the sounds of that first night audience’s booing and hissing ringing in his ears, Puccini made some adjustments to the score. And when it was mounted at Brescia shortly afterwards, it was a triumphant success with many arias encored and, in the quaint fashion of the time, the composer coming on stage at the end of each encore to share the applause with the singers. Butterfly’s hold on audiences everywhere has never wavered since.


This became a pattern: his operas given the thumbs down by audiences and critics at their first airings but finding overwhelming acceptance in the long term.


Paradoxically, his Fanciulla del West  was a stunning success at a glittering first night at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera with fans and critics alike extolling an opera set in the Wild West and starring Enrico Caruso in his first and only cowboy role. But this opera about a poker game in which the stakes are a man’s honour and a woman’s body has never found a firm and honoured place in either the repertoire or the affections of opera-goers, perhaps because it lacks the rich stream of melody that makes most of his other operas so cherished. Perth opera lovers can experience this rarity at the Maj next year.  


To this day, however, productions of La Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca have been licences for printing money. It made a fortune for Puccini (and his publisher Ricordi who bankrolled his genius client until he hit the jackpot)  who would use it to buy big-boys’ toys like souped-up motorboats in which he’d roar around Italian lakes.


Puccini seldom needed to wait for inspiration. And when it came, he would drop whatever he was doing – perhaps a noisy drinks party  – go to his room and, with drunken revelry in the background, write arias for his heroines. It was on such an occasion that he repaired to his room at a nearby inn to write the last notes of Mimi’s death scene in La Boheme, noting afterwards  “I had to get up, and while standing there in the middle of the room,  I cried like a child. It was like seeing a daughter die.” Then he went to join his sozzled, carousing mates and hit the turps. 

Boheme was wildly successful and Puccini used some of the proceeds to buy himself a yacht which he called Mimi I – and hundreds of new babies around the world were called Mimi.


Puccini was not particularly liked by his fellow composers. Would envy have been part of this? Probably.


His operas were sneered at by the likes of Gabriel Faure. That great French composer of some of the finest songs in the repertoire, dismissed La Boheme as “dreadful” and sneered at Puccini’s work in general as “a kind of soup in which every style from every country gets all mixed up.”  Shostakovich said “he wrote marvellous operas but terrible music” – and Stravinsky called Butterfly “treacly violin music”. And an eminent critic called Tosca “a shabby little shocker”    .        


But as the money rolled in from opera goers who seemed never to have enough of his music, Puccini laughed all the way to the bank. Before he hit the operatic jackpot, though, Puccini had to put up with the endless complaints of Elvira, first his mistress (she was married at the time and in the strictly Catholic Italy of the time, divorce was not an option) and later, after her husband died, Puccini’s wife. Endlessly, in their early years, she nagged her lover pointing out that Mascagni and Leoncavallo were making fortunes from their respective one-act goldmines – Cavalleria Rusticana  and I  Pagliacci – while he wasn’t. He certainly made up for lost time with Tosca, Butterfly and Boheme which made them wealthy.


As she grew older and less glamorous, Elvira became increasingly infuriated by Puccini’s dalliances and accused their domestic servant Doria  Manfredi quite wrongly of having an affair with Giacomo.  Doria was so devastated by these unfounded accusations that she killed herself. Elvira almost landed in jail after Doria’s family had Elvira charged  but Puccini bought off the family with thousands of lire.


During his student days, young Giacomo earned some income by playing the organ at church services – and the piano in taverns and brothels. But as he would often say, “early on God touched me with a finger and said ‘write for the theatre and ONLY the theatre’”. There’s no doubt that the Lord gave the young Puccini very good advice because when it came to theatre, his instincts were almost invariably unerring.


Unlike many, lesser composers who weren’t fussy about the libretti they set to music, Puccini’s endless searches for perfect texts often prompted fiery encounters between composer and wordsmiths, driving Puccini to distraction and his librettists to prostration. But when the words were to Puccini’s satisfaction, what magic flowed from his pen. His music manuscripts, incidentally, were incredibly untidy and only very few music editors were capable of translating his scrawls into readable notation – and in this there was a parallel with Beethoven’s manuscripts which are fantastically untidy as well.


It was throat cancer that killed him. He’d been a heavy smoker most of his life. He endured agonizing medical treatments which precipitated a fatal heart attack, dying before completing Turandot.


His legacy lives on in the form of innumerable recordings and regular mountings of his operas th