Puccini never wrote anything like the first act of La  Fanciulla Del West. Its melodic weave which moves from orchestra to voice and back again owes a lot to Debussy, though its author is clearly Puccini. To an audience familiar with his previous four operas, this type of operatic writing was off putting and confusing which likely explains the relative neglect the opera received for more than a half century after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910. But audiences caught on and now more than a century later Puccini’s golden girl is a part of the standard operatic repertory.

Santa Fe did the opera in 1991 and brought back again in 1995. The current production was borrowed from the English National Opera. Its three sets are prosaic and unimaginative. Santa Fe was doing an opera about the American West in a theater set in the American West. Why didn’t they open the stage’s back wall which they often do for other productions? The Polka Saloon in act 1 looks like it was ripped from a 1950s motel. Minnie’s cabin in the second act is a giant dolls house, while the Marshall’s office in the last act was  too big. The noose intended to hang Dick Johnson magically  descended from heaven and the vanished after Minnie’s rescue. Minnie and Dick walked rather than rode into the sunset.

There’s no getting away from the reality that an Italian opera about the American West is likely to produce some unintentional mirth. There were a lot of giggles at places not meant to conjure amusement. But Puccini’s glorious music overcomes American sensitivities honed by decades of Hollywood and TV Westerns.

Last night’s performance of Fanciulla by the Santa Fe company, with one major exception, was a fine realization of Puccini’s luminous and dramatic score. Patricia Racette at the age of 51 has decided to kick it up a notch. Minnie is clearly a heavier role than she has been singing for the last 20 years. She has Salome coming up soon. Whether her lirico-spinto voice can take this heavy hitting at a relatively late stage in her career is problematic. But for this show she delivered the goods. She started off slowly, not making much of Minnie’s dramatic first act entrance. For a short while after she had a substantial wobble. But as the evening progressed her sound solidified and she delivered a vocally convincing interpretation of Puccini’s and David Belasco’s never been kissed saloon keeper. Her acting was wooden and it’s a thankless task to impersonate a twenty something when you’r more than old enough to be her mother.

Minnie (Racette) behind the bar

Minnie (Racette) behind the bar

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, has the dark sound needed for the bandit, Dick Johnson. He has sung at many of the World’s leading opera houses including 24 appearances at the Met. Among his Met roles is Manrico in Il Trovatore. He had all the high notes needed for the part which asks a lot of a spinto tenor. He handled the blaze of high b-flats that concludes ‘Or son sei mesi’ with aplomb. What he lacked was volume. Though he was easily heard, a little more sound would have changed his performance from a good one to an outstanding one.

Baritone Mark Delavan gave a bluff and rather unnuanced reading of the jealous sheriff Jack Rance who in his portrayal has a weakness for alcohol. He has a tendency to bellow. His sound too was a little underpowered at the start of the opera, but grew in volume, if not subtlety, as it went along.

The supporting cast was uniformly good. Particularly notable were Raymond Aceto as the Wells Fargo agent Ashby and Craig Verm as Sonora.

This opera in which the orchestra is as much a featured performers as any of it leading soloists was led by Emmanuel Villaume. The French maestro is currently the music director of the Dallas Opera. He fully realized the interplay of melody between singers and players. He brought out the the tumult of melodies that flash by with elan. Alas, he completely went to pieces at opera’s great coup de theatre – the poker scene that concludes act 2. When Minnie cheats to save Johnson from Rance there are three series of timpani beats that increase intensity ending in a roar of sound. Or at least that’s how its supposed to happen. Under Villaume the timpani was all but inaudible when Minnie rigged the game. Racette was left to herself to pull off the scene which she did as well as she could with Villaume’s lame assistance. Too bad! When well done the scene should blow the audience away. Racette chose not to throw the cards into the air as the curtain descends as is commonly done. I really like this bit. It’s not in the libretto, but neither is what Racette did either. She stood still in triumph as the curtain fell. The libretto says she throws her arms around the wounded Johnson and bursts into sobs.

If you want to hear how this scene should be conducted listen to the excerpt below. It’s from a 1954 performance in Florence under the baton of the late and very exciting Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropolous. Even with the passage of more than 60 years Mitropolous’s reading is gripping.  Eleanor Steber and Giangiacomo Guelfi are the singers. Steber, Geulfi, Mitropolous Poker scene

In summary, a very good performance of a Puccini opera that shows the great composer expanding his game. Worth attending even if it has a few flaws.

La Fanciulla Del West (Adapted from David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West)

Minnie – Patricia Racette
Dick Johnson – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Jack Rance – Mark Delavan
Ashby – Raymond Aceto
Nick – Allan Glassman
Sonora – Craig Verm
Wowkle – Kristen Choi
Trin – John Matthew Myers
Harry – Derrek Stark
Joe – Tyson Miller
A Courier – Benjamin Werley
Jake Wallace – Nicholas Davis
Handsome – Jared Bybee
Sid – Jorge Espino
Happy – Andrew Paulson
Larkens – Adrian Smith
Billy Jackrabbit – James Harrington
Jose Castro – William Alan Higgs
Conductor – Emmanuel Villaume
Director – Richard Jones
Associate Director – Joe Austin
Scenic Designer – Miriam Buether
Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin
Original Choreographer – Lucy Burge
Associate Choreographer – Anjali Mehra
Fight Director – Rick Sordelet
Chorus Master – Susanne Sheston