10 February 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (A. Cofield, B. Gulley, D. Scofield, W. Morgan, T. Putnam, G. Palermo; Opera Orlando, 7 February 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (center) and members of PHANTASMAGORIA in Opera Orlando's February 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del West [sung in a new English translation by David Scott Marley] — Amy Cofield (Minnie), Ben Gulley (Dick Johnson), Daniel Scofield (Jack Rance), Wesley Morgan (Nick), Tyler Putnam (Ashby), Gloria Palermo (Wowkle), Torlef Borsting (Sonora), Chevalier Lovett (Bello), Brent Doucette (Trin), E Mani Cadet (Harry), Benjamin Ludwig (Joe), Jacob Pence (Sid), Matthew Fackler (Un postiglione), José-Manuel López (José Castro, Billy Jackrabbit); Ross Monroe Winter (violin), Adam Fimbres (double bass); Robin Jensen, piano and conductor [Grant Preisser, Technical Director; Alison Reid, Costume Designer; Michelle Engleman, Production and Stage Manager; Amber Rae Sandora, Hair and Makeup Designer; Alan Bruun, Stage Director; Opera Orlando, Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom, Orlando, Florida, USA; Friday, 7 February 2020]

Few physical settings are as important to an opera’s drama than California’s Sierra Nevada range and the miners’ camp nestled amidst the peaks are to Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. It is significant that, when giving the opera its title, Puccini retained the word ‘West’ from the story’s source, David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West, there being no word in as nuanced a language as Italian that could relay the essence of the American West. Born in San Francisco in 1853, Belasco was a product of the inimitable, untranslatable West, his literary and theatrical careers shaped by formative exposure to the unspoiled landscapes and sometimes turbulent communities of the American frontier. The opera’s three acts respectively set in the Polka Saloon, Minnie’s mountainside abode, and a grove of California’s emblematic redwoods, Fanciulla occupies a realm that is as much a state of mind as it is a geographical location. Though engendering site-specific challenges to counterbalance the advantages of the setting, Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West brought Belasco’s and Puccini’s California to downtown Orlando’s Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom with the kind of engrossing atmosphere that even the most picturesque traditional stagings can only approximate.

Written for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, La fanciulla del West received its first performance on 10 December 1910. Conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuting Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson, and Pasquale Amato as Rance, Fanciulla was both the MET’s first world première and the first opera with an American subject staged by the company. Such was the dedication to scenic and histrionic verisimilitude that the inaugural production was painstakingly overseen by Belasco, who by the time of Fanciulla’s première was established as one of Broadway’s most savvy theatrical writers and directors. The composer spoke virtually no English, but it was Belasco’s adaptation of a short story by John Luther Long that inspired Puccini to transform the tragic liaison between Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton into Madama Butterfly. Puccini recognized in the betrayal felt by Minnie, the pure-hearted but practical proprietress of the Polka Saloon, when she learns that the man she knows as Dick Johnson of Sacramento is the fugitive outlaw Ramerrez the same emotional potency that captivated audiences who heard Madama Butterfly.

Aside from its snigger-inducing Americanisms, which likely seemed markedly less ridiculous 110 years ago, the Italian libretto created by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini maintained an unusually high degree of fidelity to its source. Complementing the innovative choice of locations for the production, Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla utilized a new English translation by David Scott Marley, the goal of which was to minimize the divide between the opera’s text and Belasco’s play. Vital to the success of this commendable ambition was the consistent clarity of the singers’ diction, not least in passages of dialect. [In this review, the Italian texts of principal numbers are used for the benefit of readers who do not yet know Marley’s English translation.] Ramerrez’s hacienda-society upbringing was manifested, as it is in Belasco’s work, in a more formal, Romanticized style of utterance. [It was interesting to hear Johnson address Sonora in Act Three as ‘Soñora,’ subtly closing the chasm between Ramerrez’s and the miners’ cultures.] For reasons of time and logistics necessitated by physically relocating the audience during the intervals, the Act One sequence of Jake Wallace’s ballad and the homesick Jim Larkens’s departure from Cloudy Mountain was omitted. His fellow miners’ collection of funds to finance Larkens’s homeward journey is a crucial display of the compassion that facilitates the opera’s non-fatal conclusion, but Opera Orlando’s miners nonetheless palpably conveyed their affection for Minnie, rendering their change of heart towards Johnson in the opera’s final scene wholly convincing.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]The West, down South: the cast of Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Scenically, this production of Fanciulla was as engrossing as any that an aficionado who loves this score could hope to encounter. The grandeur of the stunningly beautiful Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House, in which Acts One and Three were staged, contrasted pointedly with the intimate setting for Act Two in Ceviche Ballroom, the latter evocatively illuminated by oil lamps. The aptness of the location for Act One was undeniable, but the glimmering wood of the saloon’s interior was also appropriate for the sylvan backdrop to Act Three. In Act Two, the seating arrangement situated the audience on all sides of the interior of Minnie’s cabin, begetting an immediacy that productions in opera houses cannot achieve. Feeling rather than merely seeing and hearing the awful thud when Johnson fainted after being shot made the audience participants in the drama. So, too, did the clever, brilliantly-executed theatrics of steampunk performance troupe Phantasmagoria, their eerily seductive motions making them seem like ghosts who benevolently haunted the Polka.

Stage director Alan Bruun infused this production with a naturalness that pervaded both movement and music. Interruptions of the organic flow of everyday life in Cloudy Mountain—events like Sid’s cheating at cards, the arrivals of Ashby and the post rider, and the capture of Ramerrez’s associate José Castro—were thus all the more jarring. Bruun’s concept emphasized Minnie’s innate goodness without attempting to canonize her. The girl’s manipulation of the outcome of the poker game in Act Two was unmistakably out of character, but this Minnie knew that survival in a mining camp sometimes requires more than perfume and Psalms. Alison Reid’s costumes and Amber Rae Sandora’s hair and makeup were ideal, evoking California during the Gold Rush without inhibiting comfort, range of motion, or the mechanics of singing. In both of this production’s venues, technical director Grant Preisser, lighting designer Jon Whiteley, stage manager Michelle Engleman, and assistant stage manager Emily DeNardo faced unique challenges, particularly those created by the spaces’ sight lines and the proximity of the audience, but every problem was solved with intelligence and imagination.

Presiding from the piano, Opera Orlando’s Music and Education Director Robin Jensen both paced the performance and played marvelously—and, delightfully, she received a hearty ‘Hello, Robin!’ from the miners upon their first entrance  Her expert handling of Puccini’s Italianate but often strikingly Twentieth-Century writing was matched by the impeccable musicianship of violinist Ross Monroe Winter and bassist Adam Fimbres. Fanciulla, Il tabarro, and Turandot are arguably Puccini’s most modern and adventurously-orchestrated scores, and approaching an episode like the poker game that ends Act Two without a full orchestra, Puccini’s writing for which heightens the tension and makes audible the frantic beating of Minnie’s heart, was worrying. Perfectly suited to this Fanciulla’s setting, the playing of the instrumental ensemble alternated robustness with serenity, satisfying all of the score’s musical demands. Like the staging, Jensen’s musical direction exhibited sensitivity and sensibility that reflected total understanding of the story, the score, and the setting.

IN REVIEW: bass TYLER PUTNAM as Ashby (left) and baritone DANIEL SCOFIELD as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Saloon sentinels: bass Tyler Putnam as Ashby (left) and baritone Daniel Scofield as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

The cast assembled by Opera Orlando to portray the inhabitants of Cloudy Mountains provided an impressive survey of Florida’s native and adopted talent. Hailing from Winter Park, tenor E Mani Cadet sang strongly and sweetly as Harry, following the dictates of the score, and baritone Benjamin Ludwig represented his hometown of Orlando with an ably-sung, touching portrayal of Joe, whose interactions with Minnie were those of an adoring brother. Baritone and Opera Orlando Board of Directors member-at-large Chevalier Lovett was a Bello whose vocalism warranted the character’s name. Opera Orlando Studio Artists mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo and tenor Brent Doucette sang splendidly as Wowkle and Trin, the former offering a genuinely pious and beautiful account of her prayer at the start of Act Two, and a pair of Kentucky gentlemen, Jacob Pence as Sid and Happy and baritone Matthew Fackler as the post rider, acted and sang their parts charismatically.

The production’s lone native Californian, baritone José-Manuel López, depicted José Castro and Billy Jackrabbit with none of the silly and potentially offensive mannerisms that were once traditional in these rôles, and his voice is a fine instrument. Maine may never have been visited by the Wells Fargo stagecoaches that traversed the West, but bass Tyler Putnam lacked none of Ashby’s requisite vocal and histrionic swagger. [Another felicitous detail of Marley’s translation was Ashby’s tongue-in-cheek entreaty for Minnie to bank with Wells Fargo more often, sung by Putnam with deadpan seriousness.] The burnished timbre and flinty tones wielded by Hawaii-born baritone Torlef Borsting made Sonora an atypically well-matched foil for Jack Rance. [Unsurprisingly, the brooding Sheriff is also in Borsting’s repertoire.] The high standard of Borsting’s Sonora was perpetuated by Floridian tenor Wesley Morgan, whose handsomely-sung Nick—a rôle that needs but too seldom receives handsome singing—recalled portrayals by Piero de Palma and Paul Franke.

By pinning Jack Rance’s tin star to his waistcoat, baritone Daniel Scofield joined the brigade of memorable Sheriffs including Pasquale Amato, Tito Gobbi, Giangiacomo Guelfi, Anselmo Colzani, and Silvano Carroli. That Scofield is worthy of this illustrious company was evident from his first notes. Proposing a non-violent punishment for Sid’s cheating, conversing with Ashby about the search for the highwayman Ramerrez, or boldly declaring that Minnie would soon be Mrs. Rance, Scofield filled Cheyenne Saloon with rousing, virile tone, the character’s authority in this case not merely derived from his badge. This Rance was a conqueror, not a cajoler, but the baritone voiced ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie’ with competing passion and refinement. Rance’s awkward wooing of Minnie upended by Johnson’s arrival at the Polka and the posse’s errant pursuit of Ramerrez, Scofield projected the Sheriff’s frustration into every crevice of the saloon.

Minnie’s rejection having wounded his pride, the cruelty with which Scofield’s Rance tracked Ramerrez to Minnie’s cabin and tormented her with proof of Johnson’s deception was terrifying. Though repugnantly chauvinistic, Rance’s articulation of his desire for Minnie was discernibly sincere, and the desperation of his search for a glass with which to give Minnie a steadying drink of water when she feigned distress whilst extracting the winning hand from her bodice divulged that, in this consequential moment, he was concerned for her well-being. Accustomed to getting what he wants as a lawman, a gambler, and a lover, this Rance rushed out of Minnie’s cabin with the pulverizing energy of an avalanche after losing the fateful poker game.

The Rance who demanded Johnson’s immediate hanging in Act Three was a broken man. Scofield’s vocalism resounded with the raw pain of thwarted love. When Minnie appeared, insisting that Johnson’s life be spared, Rance’s scorn of the collective inability to defy a woman was aimed as much at himself as at the miners. In Scofield’s performance, Rance was reminiscent of the Wanderer in Act Three of Wagner’s Siegfried: his power overwhelmed, he sank into the shadows. Scofield’s voice shone brightly throughout the evening, however, and the depth of the baritone’s artistry was apparent in his nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of a character who too frequently becomes a caricature.

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (left) and tenor BEN GULLEY as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]A waltz at the Polka: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie (left) and tenor Ben Gulley as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Like his soprano and baritone colleagues in a performance of La fanciulla del West, the tenor who sings the rôle of the fugitive bandito Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson of Sacramento, not only faces the considerable demands of Puccini’s music but also contends with the reputations of acclaimed interpreters of past generations, most prominent amongst whom are Caruso, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, and Plácido Domingo. The singing of Opera Orlando’s Johnson, Ben Gulley, occasionally brought to mind the work of another expert Johnson, Gianfranco Cecchele, but Gulley’s portrayal of the reforming bandito relied upon no one’s instincts but his own.

Bounding into the Polka, asking to be introduced to the rascal who promised to ‘curl his hair’ for requesting water with his whiskey, Gulley’s Johnson reacted to seeing Minnie as though he had come face to face with the barrel of a six-shooter. An accomplished actor whose psychological transformations shown on his face, Gulley insightfully limned the evolution of Johnson’s emotions. The tenor ascended to the B5 at the beginning of the duet that ends Act One with freedom that few Johnsons past or present could equal. Gulley’s upper register was reliably exhilarating, having been blessed with much-coveted ping.

Observing Minnie in her lonely cabin instigated a new deluge of feeling in Johnson, depicted by Gulley with vocalism that at once gleamed with romantic ardor and shuddered with shame and doubt, and his correction of Minnie’s mispronunciation of Dante was affectionate rather than condescending. His true identity spitefully revealed by Rance, Johnson’s recounting of the circumstances of his criminal past was sung with anguish that only increased the focus of Gulley’s vocal emission. This Johnson’s flight from Minnie’s cabin was so abrupt that many people in the audience were visibly startled when the shot that felled him rang out.

Nursed back to health by Minnie, Johnson is captured by the Cloudy Mountain posse in Act Three, and his captors’ preparations to hang him give him the opportunity to sing the aria ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano.’ Jensen set a slow tempo for the number, and Gulley’s broad phrasing and galvanizing top B♭s justified the choice. The tenor’s singing in the opera’s final scene, as Minnie persuaded the miners to show mercy and reunited with Johnson, evinced an aura of wonder, his voicing of the liberated man’s thanks to his ‘brothers’ candidly articulating relief and gratitude. Confidently confronting the rôle’s many difficulties, Gulley was a Johnson who earned his pardon.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Winchester for the win: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

That soprano Amy Cofield was an exceptionally well-qualified Violetta in Opera Roanoke’s 2016 production of Verdi’s La traviata might suggest that Puccini’s strenuous music for Minnie is not ideal for her voice. Significantly, however, Gilda dalla Rizza (Puccini’s favorite Minnie and his first Magda in La rondine), Maria Caniglia, Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Maralin Niska, and Carol Neblett were all acclaimed as both Violetta and Minnie, and, difficult as it may be for listeners who are acquainted solely with her verismo performances to believe, even the inimitable Magda Olivero, a Minnie of almost frightening intensity, also included Violetta in her repertoire. In Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla, Cofield sang her first Minnie with meticulous adherence to Puccini’s instructions, never overextending her vocal resources. Disrupting a fight in the Polka with a shot from her rifle, this Minnie introduced herself with good-natured sternness that quickly gave way to poignant tenderness in her exchanges with the miners. It is only in their brief moments with Minnie that the miners’ individual personalities emerge, and Cofield differentiated her responses to the miners accordingly.

Minnie was indisputably unsettled by Rance’s declaration of love, but Cofield’s performance intimated that the girl's reaction is prompted as much by embarrassment as by annoyance. The soprano’s account of ‘Laggiù nel Soledad’ was beautiful of tone and phrasing, building to a sublime top C. Minnie’s assurance faltered when Johnson strode into the Polka, her memories of their meeting on the road from Monterrey reawakening unfamiliar feelings. Perhaps no other character in opera delineates the distinction between Platonic and romantic loves more meaningfully than Minnie, and the fervor of a sensitive young woman falling in love permeated Cofield’s vocalism in the scene with Johnson that ends Act One.

Anxiously anticipating Johnson’s visit to her humble cabin in Act Two, Cofield’s Minnie embodied the nervous exuberance of new love. The guileless delicacy of her singing in reply to Johnson’s impassioned proclamations yielded to the euphoric top C with which Minnie welcomed her first kiss. Their bliss disturbed by the miners’ pursuit of Ramerrez, the shock of learning that the man hidden in her home is the loathed outlaw exploded in Minnie’s denunciation of her lover, Cofield’s vocalism seething with crestfallen fury. Her guilt at sending Johnson out into the night to face Rance’s wrath was obvious in this Minnie’s despondent refusal to abandon her wounded paramour.

The soprano’s fearless singing during the poker game allied with incisive acting to effect a riveting performance of the scene. Here and in Act Three, Cofield’s portrayal accentuated Minnie’s inner conflict between her devotion to Cloudy Mountain and her duty to herself. She did not harangue when reminding the miners of the lessons of forgiveness and forbearance learned in their Bible studies, but her vocal fortitude avowed that her Minnie would not hesitate to win Johnson’s freedom with her pistol. Her voice utterly secure from the bottom of the stave to her radiant top Bs and Cs, Cofield sang Minnie’s music valiantly and attractively, but the cornerstone of her performance was making Minnie’s soul as beguiling as her song.

Before entrepreneurs arrived with citrus saplings, resort blueprints, and dreams of theme parks, Orlando was a quiet settlement in colonial Florida’s cattle country. Never a rowdy cowtown like Fort Worth and Wichita or a boomtown like Virginia City, Orlando overcame the decline of the cattle industry and fabricated its own gold mines. Orlando’s prosperity in the Twenty-First Century is conspicuous in the vitality of the city’s Arts community, in which Opera Orlando’s rôle continues to grow more preeminent. Staging La fanciulla del West tests any company’s artistic resources, and audiences’ responses to a taxing work like Fanciulla appraise the viability of opera. Both as a worthwhile performance of Puccini’s magnificent score and as a gauge of Orlando’s thriving Arts scene, Opera Orlando’s sensational Fanciulla struck gold.