`Fanciulla': All's quite good on the western front

OperaReview

October 11, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

La Fanciulla del West - profound tale of morality and the redemptive power of love, or Cliche City in chaps?

Either way, Puccini's opera provides 10-gallon's worth of good old entertainment, not to mention some of his most brilliantly organized and orchestrated music. It works the way even Hollywood's lesser oaters can, by presenting familiar characters and situations, conflicts and resolutions, in a setting we know - and, deep down, prefer - to be mythologized.

As the Baltimore Opera Company's first-ever staging of Fanciulla reaffirms, there is plenty of vigor in this 1910 horse. To unhitch it, you just have to accept the work on its own terms, to believe in the sentiments that fueled Puccini (and David Belasco, whose play The Girl of the Golden West inspired the opera).

This is a piece where the vocal pump has to be primed first with lots of visual atmosphere. That's exactly what greeted Saturday's opening night crowd at the Lyric Opera House.

The sets, designed by Raffaele del Savio and purchased from Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the noted Italian music festival, looked very handsome, especially the first act's rustic saloon and the second's cabin in a snowy woods. (Not snowy enough - this theater badly needs a truly voluminous fake-snow machine.)

The finale went beyond the libretto's straightforward "a clearing in the great Californian forest" to start inside the mouth of a rickety mine, and then open up (a little raggedly on Saturday) to reveal a vista of white-capped Sierras. This forced some awkward, cramped movements, but still paid off nicely.

Populating this scenic world was a spirited, generally sturdy cast that carried out director Lorenza Cantini's astute direction with naturalistic flair.

The title role is one of Puccini's toughest assignments. Minnie, the heart-of-gold, fiercely independent, gun-totin' saloon owner in a rugged mining camp, is the miners' mom and teacher; she's also an intense object of desire for coldhearted Sheriff Rance and a stranger called Johnson. The music reflects all of Minnie's emotional pulls, from both-barrels-blazing high notes to tender, reflective phrases.

Giovanna Casolla met the challenge admirably. Although the upper register was not free of strain, it scored direct hits where it counted. More impressive was how the soprano animated every line, conveying the girlish aspects of Minnie as persuasively as the ripe-and-ready.

Her acting proved equally assured. Note how her face blossomed into a radiant smile at the end of Act 1, basking in the afterglow of Johnson's compliment - and how coldly she turned on him later when she discovered his deception.

Too bad Casolla lost ground in the drama department at the denouement, when she arrived to save her boyfriend not on horseback, but in an elegant carriage pulled at a leisurely pace by one of the two live horses in the production.

(I can understand if Casolla didn't want to risk an equestrian misadventure, but I wish a more convincing rescue could have been devised. Same for her subsequent departure with her beau in that same carriage; they looked like they were heading off for a road show of Oklahoma.)

As Johnson (really the bandit Ramerrez), Frank Porretta turned in a confident performance, sparked by virile top notes and enough softer touches to flesh out the character and tap the music's lyrical vein. Ned Barth was a commanding Rance, in tone and gesture; the baritone's consistently colorful phrasing helped get beyond the character's stereotypical villainy.

The miners were a believable, lovable lot. They needed only a more cohesive, truly sweet sound when the dynamics softened. There were many telling individual contributions, particularly those by Patrick Tomey (Nick), Elia Todisco (Jake and Ashby), John Weber (Harry).

Andrea Licata conducted this Gold Rush opera in a rush of his own, zipping through some of the score's richest, most potentially endearing passages, but the propulsive edge had its effective rewards. The orchestra did vibrant, mostly tight work.

Fanciulla is full of wonderful little details that can still ring true. Cantini's direction artfully heightened many of them.

One example came when the minstrel delivered his sad song in the saloon. The miners mimed and mocked his old refrain, even the little catch in the throat as he sang about "la mia mamma," but the mockery slowly faded from their faces into a pang of real nostalgia. Moments like that are exactly what keeps this opera golden.

Opera

What: La Fanciulla del West

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8:15 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Oct. 17

Tickets: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000

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