24 April 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (K. Sampson, M. Giordani, A. Bogdanov, J. McKinney, G. Bocchino, A. Harreveld, D. Hartmann, C. DuPont, D. Boye, N. Nestorak, J. McEvoy; Opera Carolina, 23 April 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del WestKristin Sampson (Minnie), Marcello Giordano (Dick Johnson), Aleksey Bogdanov (Jack Rance), Jason S. McKinney (Ashby), Gianluca Bocchino (Nick), Giovanni Guagliardo (Sonora), Johnathan White (Joe), Joshua Wild (Bello), David Clark (Happy), Noah Rice (Harry), Michael Francis Stomar (Jim Larkens), Donald Hartmann (Billy Jackrabbit), Carl DuPont (José Castro), Dan Boye (Sid), Nicholas Nestorak (Trin), Jeffrey McEvoy (Jake Wallace), Anna Harreveld (Wowkle), John Harmon (Un postiglione); Men of the Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Ivan Stefanutti, Director; Stefano Nicolao, Costume Designer; Michael Baumgarten, Digital Projection Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 23 April 2017]

In his biography of the man of dubious morals who was purported to be the model for the irreproachable protagonist of Owen Wister’s genre-defining novel The Virginian, John Watson wrote that ‘Los Angeles has never been a truly civilized place.’ Many of the Easterners who trekked to the Bear Republic in search of fame or fortune would surely have agreed that all of California could be a land of misery and misfortune, its beauties at once seductive and inhospitable. Whatever chivalry existed in the early California of Spanish missionaries, haciendas, and rancheros was quickly obliterated by the coarse manners and lawlessness that poured over the Sierra Nevada with prospectors in search of quick fortunes to be extracted from the celebrated lodes of the romanticized West. Careful study of history dispels the notion of California’s near-mythical Forty-Niners having been mostly a poorly-educated, hard-living lot, but the fraternity of work-wearied miners who populate David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West owe what education and humanity of which they can boast to the eponymous Girl, the disarmingly unsophisticated but intriguingly complex proprietress of the Polka Saloon. That Belasco’s Girl was an unlikely sister for Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Tosca, and Cio-Cio San, the last of these another lady to whom the Italian composer was introduced by a Belasco dramatization, made her all the more tantalizing. The musical characterization that resulted is one of Puccini’s most endearing, but the difficulty of the music that the Girl of the Golden West and her fellow residents of the Cloudy Mountain mining camp makes her an infrequent visitor to the world’s stages. Again treading into territory avoided by many of America’s regional opera companies, Opera Carolina brought La fanciulla del West to Charlotte with seismic passion befitting the opera’s fault-straddling setting. Why Fanciulla is neglected when Puccini’s other mature operas maintain prominence in the international repertory was obvious, but Opera Carolina’s performance fired Fanciulla’s virtues into the theatre with the accuracy of Annie Oakley’s rifle. Anyone in the audience who failed to take a shot to the heart wore armor impervious to opera at its best.

Commissioned during the managerial administration of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, La fanciulla del West was composed to order for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, by which company the opera was premièred on 10 December 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting and a cast including Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as the ‘road agent’ Dick Johnson (né Ramerrez), and Pasquale Amato as Sheriff Jack Rance. Immediately recognized as a work of exemplary musical craftsmanship, Fanciulla nonetheless failed to attain the level of popularity enjoyed by La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. The demands exacted on singers, musicians, and conductor by Fanciulla are as imposing as the Sierra Nevada themselves, but, like the backbreaking work of the miners, the toil is richly rewarded.

Conducting with firm grasps on both the opera’s unflinching directness and its uncanny emotional impact, Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena provided the focus and propulsion that a performance of Fanciulla needs without neglecting any of the score’s meticulously-wrought details. There was an abiding cinematic expansiveness to Meena’s approach, but this was not a Fanciulla that seemed like a film score with voices. The conductor’s gift for inspiring the Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was much in evidence in the excellence of the ensembles’ work. Fanciulla is a daunting score for even the best-trained musicians, and the Charlotteans marvelously rose to the challenge. Harpist Amber Joy Carpenter1 earned particular praise for her beautiful playing. Perhaps American musicians feel for this score something like the pride that Italians feel for Nabucco and the Viennese for Der Rosenkavalier, but the choral singing, orchestral playing, and conducting in Charlotte would distinguish a production of Fanciulla in any of the world’s great opera houses. The drama progressed at a near-ideal pace: nothing lingered beyond its capacity to captivate, and successive events had clarity and cohesion. Narratively, Fanciulla is arguably Puccini’s most tautly-constructed work, with no offstage madrigals or farewells to overcoats to delay the resolutions of scenes, and Meena insightfully steered the performance through the few pages of the scores that can present problems with momentum. During his seventeen-year tenure with the company, Meena has been on the podium for many of Opera Carolina’s greatest successes, among which was an unforgettable Turandot in 2015. This performance of La fanciulla del West raised the bar for future Opera Carolina seasons and for the quality of productions of Fanciulla throughout the world.

A native Californian, David Belasco worked before his theatrical aspirations took him to New York as stage manager at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, a bustling town enriched by the high-quality silver extracted from the Comstock Lode. The experience that he gained in this bastion of the legendary Old West served him well throughout his career, which encompassed not only Broadway success and collaborations with Puccini but also nurturing the development of talented young actors, one of whom, Barbara Stanwyck, would eventually portray one of the foremost heroines of American television Westerns, Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley. In Opera Carolina’s production of Fanciulla, an ambitious joint venture with Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, and the revitalized New York City Opera, it looked as though at any moment in the performance the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, the Graingers of Shiloh, or any of the familiar figures of America’s fictionalized West might have strode onto the stage. Historical accuracy was not among Puccini’s foremost goals when creating a score, but his operatic excursion into the American West, guided by the first-hand knowledge that enlivened Belasco’s play, is distinguished by a magnitude of realism rare even in verismo.

Fanciulla takes place circa 1850, not long after the first large-scale discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Mexican California in 1848 [the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ceded modern California to the United States of America, was not signed until nine days after the initial discovery at Sutter’s Mill], and conjuring an atmosphere reflecting the opera’s physical and temporal settings was a central focus in Opera Carolina’s production. Rather than frequently-encountered depictions as a cigar-store Indian and his daft squaw, for instance, Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle were here credible representatives of California’s indigenous peoples; in the case of those in proximity to gold-mining country, perhaps the Modoc. Nevertheless, theatricality was not lost amidst the visual verisimilitude embodied by Atelier Nicolai’s costumes, Ivan Stefanutti’s production designs, and the sets and digital projections, supervised by Opera Carolina’s Director of Production Michael Baumgarten and built in the company’s Gastonia workshop. Granted access to the company’s San Francisco archives by the Charlotte office of Wells Fargo, the production team brought to the Belk Theater stage a California mining camp as authentic as any that has existed in the century since the cessation of mining transformed once-vibrant boom towns into dusty, deserted ghost towns. The stenches of whiskey and cigar smoke veritably wafted from the interior of Opera Carolina’s Polka Saloon, a raucous establishment tamed in an instant by its Girl and her Bible lessons—and her six shooter. Instead of the Halloween-cowboy pageants often imposed upon Puccini’s opera, this was a Fanciulla so absorbing that it was surprising not to hear the jangling of spurs and shot glasses during the interval.

IN PERFORMANCE: the cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Ciao, ragazzi: the cast of Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The degree to which Puccini and his librettists, Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, were faithful to Belasco’s play is remarkable, not least in the subtly-characterized vignettes of Cloudy Mountain’s miners and patrons of the Polka Saloon. Amidst the perils of Belasco’s mining camp, where missteps can send the careless plummeting into the abyss and misspeaks might be rewarded with gunfire no less fatal, thoughtfulness is a precious commodity, and the tender hearts amongst the hardscrabble denizens of Puccini’s Cloudy Mountain therefore beat still more perceptibly. As the Postiglione—not, as Belaso (but not Puccini) and Opera Carolina’s playbill and supertitles indicated, a Pony Express rider, as the Pony Express only rode for nineteen months, a decade after Fanciulla takes place—who electrifies the Polka with the fateful message from the treacherous woman of ill repute, Nina Micheltoreña [she loses her tilde in Italian, pobrecita], indicating her willingness to betray the bandit she loved to Wells Fargo, John Harmon delivered his lines with equal expediency and effectiveness. The miners Joe, Bello, Harry, and Happy, each having his moment in the spotlight, were brought to life with good singing and acting by Johnathan White, Joshua Wild, Noah Rice, and David Clark. Bass-baritones Jason S. McKinney and Carl DuPont as Wells Fargo agent Ashby and his quarry José Castro, a member of Ramerrez’s party of stagecoach robbers, deployed firm, focused voices in Puccini’s congenial lines and clearly enjoyed playing their parts in the drama.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Harreveld opened Act Two with a portrayal of Minnie’s Native American domestic Wowkle that was laudably free of caricature, her singing of ‘Il mio bimbo è grande e piccino’ unusually attractive. Her shy glances at her mistress as she entertained Johnson spoke volumes about the girl’s attachment to Minnie. An operatic Buster Keaton with the vocal resonance of Nazzareno De Angelis, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann set the wooden Billy Jackrabbit, Wowkle’s intended consort, ablaze with aptly earthy vocalism. Affability boomed from his singing of ‘Tua padrona mandare. Dice: Billy sposare.’ Special care was expended in lessening the pejorative implications of Wowkle’s and Billy’s frequent articulations of ‘Ugh.’ Communicative rather than offensively indicative of savagery in this performance, the monosyllables were neither more nor less than the knowing private language of a community of two.

As Sid, Belasco’s ‘Sidney Duck,’ bass-baritone Dan Boye protested his punishment for cheating at cards without overdoing the histrionics, and, like all of his fellow citizens of Cloudy Mountain, the sincerity of this Sid’s devotion to Minnie could not be questioned. Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a stylish, sympathetic Trinidad, and baritone Jeffrey McEvoy made the minstrel Jake Wallace’s Andante tranquillo ballad ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei là lontano’ an interlude of moving but not overwrought nostalgia. Michael Francis Stromar voiced the broken Jim Larkens’s longing to return home, ‘Non reggo più, non reggo più, ragazzi,’ heartbreakingly, legitimizing the magnanimous reaction of his friends, whose collection of funds for Larkens’s homeward journey is as poignant in its way as Mimì’s and Cio-Cio San’s deaths in La bohème and Madama Butterfly. Tenor Gianluca Bocchino sang appealingly as Nick, the Polka’s wily barkeep, the character’s concern for Minnie’s welfare as palpable as his boundless affection for her, but he sometimes struggled to project over Puccini’s orchestrations. Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was a tough but tender Sonora, singing ‘Le tue parole sono di Dio’ in Act Three eloquently. In the opera’s final scene, the miners’ repetitions of ‘Mai più ritornerai, no, mai più, mai più’ were profoundly touching, their sadness at Minnie’s departure from Cloudy Mountain as expansive as the California landscapes that surrounded them.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Bass-baritone JASON S. MCKINNEY as Ashby, soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie, and baritone ALEKSEY BOGDANOV as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]The lady and the law: (from left to right) Bass-baritone Jason S. McKinney as Ashby, soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

In terms of the leading rôles in Puccini’s operas, only Turandot is as difficult to cast as La fanciulla del West. Rance and Johnson demand vocal and dramatic resources at least as great as those wielded by the best interpreters of their counterparts in Tosca and Il tabarro. Ideally, Minnie requires a voice poised between Tosca and Turandot, allying a reliable lower octave with an upper extension capable of scaling the formidable heights of the tessitura and soaring in her Act One aria to one of opera’s most ferocious exposed top Cs. The ranks of great Toscas and Turandots are hardly overpopulated, but great Minnies are still fewer. Two of the finest American exponents of the rôle, Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, would likely have been advised by competent vocal coaches to avoid the part, which since it was recorded by Birgit Nilsson has often been assigned to singers with credentials in Wagner and Richard Strauss repertories rather than Puccinians—if, that is, bonafide Puccinians have existed in the years since Renata Tebaldi sang her final Minnie. In the seasons since the opera’s centennial in 2010, Fanciulla has been performed more often than in decades past, but the casting of Rance, Johnson, and Minnie in a number of productions has reaffirmed the near-impossibility of manning a production of Fanciulla with singers capable of more than basic survival in the lead rôles. Here, too, Opera Carolina succeeded astonishingly, giving the Charlotte audience a central trio by no means unworthy of music first sung by Amato, Caruso, and Destinn.

Jack Rance, Cloudy Mountain’s rugged lawman, is, perhaps in spite of himself, one of Puccini’s most three-dimensional characters. Duplicitous, jealous, and merciless, even he is ennobled to some extent by his interactions with Minnie. As portrayed by baritone Aleksey Bogdanov in Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla, he was conniving but conflicted, lust never wholly overwhelming an inherent decorum. At the start of Act One, his singing of ‘Che terra maledetta, quest’occidente d’oro!’ evinced bitterness, but there was sly humor in the calm professionalism of ‘Andiam, ragazzi; un po’ di calma’ and his handling of Sid’s transgression. The rancor between Rance and Ashby in Belasco is muted by Puccini, and Bogdanov’s Rance presented his counterpart to the Polka’s customers with a hearty account of ‘Ragazzi, fate largo! Salute a mister Ashby, dell’Agenzia Wells Fargo.’ The utter conviction with which he referred to Minnie as ‘Mistress Rance, fra poco’ was both arrogant and strangely vulnerable, the sardonic gambler suddenly revealing his hand. As much sweetness as such a man can muster was infused into the baritone’s singing of ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and Bogdanov phrased the lovely Andante sostenuto ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito ch’è là dai monti’ with awkward but affecting feeling. None too happy about a stranger’s interruption of his floundering wooing of Minnie, Rance’s frustration burgeoned in Bogdanov’s virile singing of ‘Mister Johnson, voi m’avete seccato!’ and ‘Ragazzi! Uno straniero ricusa confessare perchè si trova al campo!’

Stealing like the howling blizzard into Minnie’s cabin in Act Two, the boyish glee with which Bogdanov’s Rance voiced ‘Abbiamo detto che il tuo perfetto Johnson di Sacramento,’ disavowing Minnie of her imperfect acquaintance with her ‘dandy,’ was disgustingly smug. Later, returning in search of the injured Johnson, he corrected Minnie with a brutal reading of ‘Non son Jack...Son lo Sceriffo, a caccia del tuo Johnson d’inferno.’ Bogdanov’s body language conveyed the tension of the poker game for Minnie’s and Johnson’s freedom as grippingly as his flinty singing. Conceding defeat, he departed with a growled ‘Buona notte’ that imparted far more than a crestfallen goodbye. The full force of Rance’s anger and disenfranchisement exploded in Act Three, and Bogdanov recalled Louis Quilico with a startlingly vehement account of ‘Or piangi tu, o Minnie, or piangi tu!’ Throughout the performance, Bogdanov’s top Fs were perfectly-pitched and powerful, and he filled the theatre with exhilaratingly masculine sound without shouting. The irony that radiated from his singing of ‘E così, Mister Johnson, come va?’ was as stinging as the blow he dealt his captured rival for Minnie’s love, and his tones when he hurled ‘Basta, donna, alle tue parole!’ at Minnie were those of a man already past the point of no return—a man who declared in Act One that he fears no destiny but is shattered by circumstances that he cannot manipulate. Clad in a suit of a hue that seemed drawn from the depths of Lake Tahoe, Bogdanov was a thrillingly-sung Rance who was all the more dangerous for being so debonair.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Passion at the Polka: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

With a career that has taken him to the world’s most celebrated opera houses for performances of a wide repertory encompassing many of the most difficult rôles written for the tenor voice, Marcello Giordani is among the few truly qualified heirs to the legacy of Bergonzi and Corelli. Bergonzi and Corelli were very different singers, of course, and at his best Giordani has exemplified the finest qualities of both of his forebears, combining aspects of Bergonzi’s grace and musicality with Corelli’s unbridled intensity. Although he unwisely ventured the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello very late in his career, Bergonzi never sang Johnson, but Puccini’s bandito was a good fit for Corelli, not least opposite Dorothy Kirsten’s feminine but fearless Minnie in the 1966 MET revival of Fanciulla. When the MET celebrated the opera’s hundredth anniversary in the 2010 – 2011 Season, it was to Giordani that Johnson’s music was entrusted. Solely as singing, the tenor’s performance of the rôle was in many ways more successful in Charlotte than in New York. The voice’s lower octave was slow in coming under control and could turn unruly at any time throughout the afternoon, but pitches were mostly placed accurately and solidly. Most notably, Giordani left sobbing and other Italian tenor mannerisms to other singers, preferring simply to sing the music. Strutting into the Polka’s barroom, ready to face the threatened ‘hair curling’ he garnered by ordering whiskey with water, Johnson was stopped in his tracks by recognizing Minnie as the enchanting girl he once met on the road to Monterey. Giordano’s voice lacked the youthful vigor needed for ‘Chi c’è, per farmi i ricci?’ but exuded the bashful wonder of ‘Vi ricordate di me?’ His voicing of ‘Non so ben neppur io quel che sono’ flowed organically to a brilliant top B♭, and the tenor’s dulcet phrasing of the beautiful Andante mosso moderatamente ‘Quello che tacete me l’ha detto il cor’ revealed his instinctive comprehension of Puccini’s style.

The ardor of ‘Un bacio, un bacio almen!’ in Act Two surged without vulgarity, and Giordano lent his singing of ‘Minnie! Che dolce nome!’—a line that, largely owing to supertitles, inexplicably prompts laughter from today’s audiences—romantic restraint that heightened the significance of the sentiment. Giordani joined his Minnie in an incandescent performance of their unison ‘Dolce vivere e morir e non lasciarci più’ in which they soared with few hints of effort to the top B♭s and C. Revealed as Ramerrez, the bandit being pursued by Wells Fargo, Johnson’s explanation of the circumstances that precipitated his criminal enterprise fell on ears too consumed by pealing anger to fully hear and process his words, but Giordani sang ‘Ma non vi avrei rubato!’ and discharged Johnson’s repeated top B♭s with enthralling enthusiasm. Giordani sang Johnson’s aria in Act Three, the emotionally-charged Andante molto lento ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,’ with a stream of glowing, easily-projected tone, rising to the pair of top B♭s strongly. The quiet relief and honest gratitude with which he voiced ‘Grazie, fratelli’ after Sonora and the miners freed him from the noose and reunited him with Minnie succinctly disclosed the essence of the complicated but honorable character Giordani had personified throughout the performance. Bidding farewell to the land of Johnson’s youth, Giordani addressed ‘Addio, mia dolce terra’ as much to the peaks and valleys of his life as to the California topography, the top B a cry of rebirth. Having an artist of Giordani’s reputation in Charlotte is an accomplishment of which the city should be proud, but having a Johnson of the quality provided by Giordani in Opera Carolina’s La fanciulla del West was a priceless gift to opera lovers.

A performance of La bohème can overcome poor singing from its Mimì, but Minnie in Fanciulla faces the most daunting fate of any Puccini heroine: survival. The vocal sins of an inadequate Mimì are easily forgiven when she breathes her last in the company of her friends, but Minnie, whose resilience is the backbone of Fanciulla, has no tragedy behind which to hide. Upon her shoulders, the opera soars or sinks, and soprano Kristin Sampson, a diminutive Atlas with a voice of satin and steel, lofted Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla into the endless California sky with an imaginative but delightfully straightforward portrayal of Minnie. Though reinforced by a shot from her pistol, this Minnie’s entrance was sufficient to end the fracas among Rance, Sonora, and their factions in Act One, her pointed query ‘Che cos’è stato?’ reducing the burly men to stuttering embarrassment. Beginning the miners’ coveted Bible lesson, Sampson voiced the Andantino ‘Dove eravamo? Ruth...Ezechiel’ and the plaintive ‘Lavami e sarò bianco come neve’ girlishly, laying the foundation of belief in redemption and rejuvenation upon which the opera’s final scene is built. Derisively describing Nina Micheltoreña when the Postiglione brought news of the harlot’s proposed meeting with Ashby, her voice assumed an air of coquetry as she insinuated ‘È una finta spagnuola nativa di Cachuca.’ Sparring with Rance, for whom the respect she invoked was genuine, was for Sampson’s Minnie sport without the slightest indication of ill will. The surprise and hurt of Rance’s betrayal of the cordiality of their relationship were therefore heightened.

Sampson approached Minnie’s Andantino aria ‘Laggiù nel Soledad, ero piccina’ not as a showpiece but as a rare reverie in which the girl allowed herself to reminisce about the distant joys of her childhood. The soprano ascended to a bright, secure top C, but this was a component rather than the goal of her performance of the aria. Energized by Johnson’s unexpected arrival at the Polka, Sampson’s Minnie vouched for him with an ‘Io lo conosco! Innanzi al campo intero...sto garante per Johnson!’ of inviolable integrity. When invited to dance, the innocence at the core of Sampson’s mirthful reading of ‘Io? Scusatemi: voi non lo crederete, non ho mai ballato in vita mia’ was enchanting. Guarded surrender to new feelings emanated from her singing of ‘Mister Johnson, siete rimasto indiestro a farmi compagnia per custodir la casa?’ Her well-schooled vocalism notwithstanding, it was impossible to doubt this Minnie when she asserted ‘Io non son che una povera fanciulla’ and punctuated the declaration with a shining top B. There is no more bewitchingly self-effacing remark in opera than Minnie’s ‘Non v’aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli d’educazione,’ in which she ashamedly warns Johnson of the dullness of her conversation owing to her education amounting to only what thirty dollars can buy, and Sampson sang the lines without a trace of artifice. Remembering Johnson’s parting words, she caressed each syllable of ‘Come ha detto? Un viso d’angelo,’ ending Act One with a sigh of reawakened love.

Few characters in opera experience greater personal upheaval than Minnie endures in Act Two of La fanciulla del West. Preparing the mountainside cabin—and herself—to host Johnson, Sampson’s Minnie proclaimed ‘Voglio vestirmi tutta come in giorno di festa’ with boundless joy, her top B♭ like a beacon to guide Johnson along the craggy path to her welcoming abode. As in her aria in Act One, she phrased ‘Oh, se sapeste come il vivere è allegro!’ in a manner in which her stunning top B was an extension of the line rather than its own destination. Sampson’s fortissimo top C when Minnie awarded her first kiss to Johnson left no doubt about the breadth of her elation. Having embraced these new sensations, the upending of her world when Rance brusquely informed her that her lover was deceiving her was devastating. Sampson vaulted ‘Vieni fuori, vieni fuori, vieni fuor!’ into the theatre with abandon, her top B♭ glinting. The rising tide of her desperation crested on the soprano’s incendiary voicing of ‘Vigliacco! Ah! Via di qua, vigliacco!’ She gamely touched the top C♯ that Puccini cruelly requested, the roar of a wounded soul. The scene in which Minnie challenges Rance to a life-or-death game of poker is nothing short of genius, and Puccini’s orchestration, reducing the soundscape to percussion amplifying the palpitations of Minnie’s heart, is the work of a keen theatrical sensibility. Sampson suggested ‘Una partita a poker!’ with pluck that tempered her anxiety. Having distracted Rance and produced the winning hand from the folds of her skirt, this Minnie’s ‘Vi sbagliate. È la gioia! Ho vinto io! Tre assi e un paio!’ brandished the brawn of Brünnhilde’s battle cry. The string of top As as Minnie entered in Act Three streaked across the gloomy scene like lightning, and even at the foot of the scaffold the miners’ faces were illuminated with the happiness that Minnie brought to them. Sampson sang ‘Di qual giustizia parli tu?’ potently, and with ‘Non vi fumai chi disse: Basta!’ she scolded the society into which she introduced the concepts of compassion and forgiveness. This was her final lesson to her beloved friends: as Hermann Hesse put it, there are situations in which letting go requires greater strength of character than holding on. Sampson’s Minnie was a fighter without enmity, in voice as much as in spirit a true Girl of the Golden West.

Puccini is often conceded to be an important composer of opera but is seldom if ever cited as a great composer in a broader sense. On the whole, it is difficult to dispute the validity of such an assessment, but hearing a persuasive performance of La fanciulla del West can convince an open-minded listener that Puccini was far more than a purveyor of pretty tunes and weepy melodramas. Much has been written about the shadows of Debussy, Richard Strauss, and even Wagner that stretch across the rocky vistas of La fanciulla del West, but the voice that emerges most viscerally from the score is Puccini’s. Opera Carolina’s production of La fanciulla del West let Puccini’s voice be heard without obstruction, not just putting on a marvelous show but reclaiming the hope of a time in which prosperity was measured not by bank balances and possessions but by hard work, honesty, and fairness. This was a Fanciulla del West that rekindled the famous words of Walt Whitman: in this performance, one could hear America singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Revolver to the rescue: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

1Apologies to Amber Joy Carpenter for having erroneously cited another harpist in the initial publication of this review.