Friday, July 10, 2015

Puccini: La fanciulla del West—Des Moines Metro Opera

©2015 All Photos Courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO)
Act I: The Polka Saloon   ©2015 All Photos Courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO)

Why would information about an opera performed in Des Moines appeal to readers of a Denver-centric music publication?  First, you have two major participants in the Iowa production—the director and the title character—taking on similar positions in an upcoming Opera Colorado offering, namely Aida in November 2015.  Second, strong rumors abound that this operatic rarity may FINALLY grace a Front Range stage, possibly as early as fall 2016.  Third, and most importantly, whenever a small-market opera company manages to produce an unqualified success on a (relatively) limited budget—that is newsworthy no matter how distant the venue!

As part of its 43rd summer festival season, the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) celebrated the Fourth of July with a matinee performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, a reasonably faithful operatic interpretation of one of the turn-of-the-20th-century’s top dramas, “The Girl of the Golden West,” written by American playwright David Belasco.  While nowhere near as famous as Puccini’s Big Three—La bohème, Madama Butterfly (also based on a Belasco play) and Tosca—and far less-often performed, “Fanciulla” offers three things that comprise a really good opera: a plausible story, conflicted characters, and great music.

Set in California’s Sierra Nevada Range, “Fanciulla” is a three-act gem whose trio of main characters—saloon owner Minnie, sheriff Jack Rance and outsider Dick Johnson (the nom de guerre of the bandit Ramerrez)—are supported by a company of miners and other hangers-on who gravitate to the Polka Saloon as their sole means of entertainment in an otherwise brutal existence, especially in winter when the opera’s action takes place.  But while the surface story deals with Johnson’s initial plan to rob the miners of their gold—Minnie’s establishment acts as a depository until the ore is sent onward via courier for processing—and Rance’s anxiety over capturing the outlaw, the subtext combines the timeless conflict of a basic love triangle with a closing message of redemption.

A more iconic Independence Day venue than a small town in Middle America would be difficult to find for an opera about California’s Gold Rush days.  Fifteen miles south of Des Moines, the city of Indianola is home to Blank Performing Arts Center on the campus of Simpson College [est. 1860].  In the auditorium, with room for just under 500 patrons, one is never farther from the stage than a dozen rows, and a mere seven rows on the sides. This allows singers to comfortably perform without having to project their voices hundreds of feet into the “rafters.”  The semi-circular seating design offers a sense of intimacy and presents an agreeable visual experience without reproducing the in-the-round acoustical issues that tend to give singers nightmares in venues such as Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall.

Pretty much every opera requires some suspension of disbelief, especially when it comes to matching the maturity of a singer’s vocal requirements to a character’s assumed or implied youth.  No one expects a teenager to adequately perform the vocally challenging roles of Juliet, Lucia or Butterfly, to name just three famous sub-20-year-old characters.   But if the “Met in HD” series has taught us anything, with its high-definition cinecasts and extreme close-ups, it’s that disbelief can only take one so far when confronted with a 50-year-old Minnie, a 47-year-old Dick and a 51-year-old Jack, no matter how celebrated the singers.  This is one of those elements that made the DMMO production so delightful, anchored as it was by a trio of youthful, exuberant opera singers who—for once—looked the part as well as lived it.

Even though the title character doesn’t come onstage until action is well underway, common to other high-profile Puccini heroines, the appearance of soprano Alexandra Lobianco electrified the audience as much as it did the group of brawling miners.  Firing her rifle to get her patrons’ attention and exhibiting a tavern-owning swagger that belied her character’s presumed youth—early 20s at the most—Lobianco started off with a strong vocal performance that never lagged.  Minnie has a couple of arias scattered throughout the opera including the sweetly instructive “Dove eravamo?” the Bible lesson she gives to the miners in Act I, as well as the highly emotional final scene where [spoiler alert] she convinces the lynch mob to let her carry off a wounded Dick Johnson to some unknown romantic future together.  However, Lobianco’s personal highlight was the extensive Act II poker game with the sheriff to gain Dick Johnson’s freedom.  Puccini put a lot of trust in his prima donna to carry the scene vocally as well as dramatically—especially since she is onstage the entire act and the card game comes at the very end of it—and Lobianco was clearly up to the task.  Her other shining moment is also worthy of mention.  Riding a stallion onstage in the middle of Act III to come to her paramour’s rescue, Lobianco looked perfectly at home on that horse, smooth dismount and all.  That’s pretty good for a woman who hails from the wilds of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Alexandra Lobianco as Minnie
Sheriff Jack Rance is a man caught between his vow as an officer of the law and his unrequited love (or perhaps lust) for the mining camp’s only available female.  He is nonetheless an honorable man, a significant distance character-wise from one’s standard operatic villain whose main identifier is a low-pitched voice, as embodied by Scarpia [Tosca] or Iago [Otello].  The librettists made Rance their most three-dimensional personality, and bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter was equal to the task.  Faced with the Act I piece, “Minnie, dalla mia casa,” as much sung dialogue as it is aria, Rance confesses his love for the saloon-keeper and offers to marry her.  Irmiter managed the song’s one-and-a-half-octave range with ease, taking advantage of the audience’s proximity to faithfully follow Puccini’s markings of pianissimo where appropriate and thereby exhibit the traits of sincerity and directness the composer had intended.  It was a sublimely enjoyable two minutes of music.   And even though anyone familiar with the storyline knows that Rance discovers Johnson’s hiding place because blood leaking from the outlaw’s bullet wounds drips down onto the sheriff just as he’s about to leave Minnie’s cabin, Irmiter played the part with such convincing incredulity at seeing blood appear seemingly out of nowhere, one almost expected a surprise plot twist.  As brief as the scene might have been, it was brilliantly acted.

Given the fact that Puccini created Dick Johnson expressly for Enrico Caruso, one might presume a tenor singing this part might feel intimidated enough to have it affect their performance, the way a handful of Cubs’ outfielders might have felt about wearing Billy Williams’ No. 26 until the team got around to retiring it in 1987; Larry Biittner’s uninspiring career springs to mind.  But nothing of the sort occurred when Jonathan Burton strolled into the Polka Saloon as if he owned it, saddle slung over one arm as he demanded a “whiskey and water” in a strong, clear, perfectly intonated tenor voice.  Despite the ridicule to which his character is subjected by the chorus of the unwashed, he confidently introduces himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento and reminds Minnie they’d met previously in Monterrey.  Of course, we all know he’s really Ramerrez the bandit, planning with his Mexican mates to abscond with the miners’ hardscrabble earnings that very night.  In one of the opera’s more tender moments, Burton and Lobianco enjoyed a waltz to a tune hummed by the saloon’s patrons.  The duet they began as their dancing continues—interspersed with vocal lines and pauses—until the end of the act, clearly offered the audience a chance to enjoy these two voices meld with near-perfection as Minnie confesses her love for Dick and convinces him to visit her cabin in Act II.  It is there where the pair alternate between romance and rancor, especially when Johnson confesses his original plan to steal the gold.  Having departed the cabin, he returns after being seriously wounded by the men hot on his trail, whereupon Minnie hides him in her attic to set up the fateful card-playing scene.  But Burton’s big moment came near the very end of the opera, where Dick is led to an impromptu gallows and pleads with the men to let Minnie think he simply slipped away, never to return.  The aria “Ch’ella mi creda” is the showstopper that helped cement Caruso’s U.S. career—even though he never recorded it due to a disagreement with the publisher—and Burton’s emotional interpretation showed he had just as much vocal and theatrical command of his role at the end of Act III as he did when he first strode into Minnie’s establishment, seemingly a lifetime earlier.
Act III: Finale
La fanciulla del West is notable not only for its incongruously placed Americanisms—fans accustomed to Italian opera will find the opening number “Hello! Hello! Alla Polka” a bit disconcerting to the ear—but also its reliance on 15 “named” characters in supporting roles, some with fairly extensive solo passages,.  This is contrary to most works in the standard repertoire, where even the grandest of operas augment the main characters with a mostly faceless chorus.  Puccini’s methodology serves to humanize the group while still allowing them to act in a single voice where appropriate.

Bass-baritone Christopher Job, who hails from Orange County, California, was “Ashby,” the Wells Fargo agent who convinces the locals to hunt down the bandit Ramerrez/Johnson.  Tenor John Robert Lindsey of Fort Collins, one of DMMO’s apprentice artists this season, was in the tertiary role of “Joe.”  Both singers are well known to Denver-area opera aficionados, thanks to their appearances in local productions as well as participation in years past in Denver Lyric Opera Guild and Metropolitan Opera competitions.  Job combined a sonorously resonant depth of voice with some serious acting chops, helping bring to life a stage character far more important to the action in Belasco’s play than the way Puccini (via librettists Civinni and Zangarini) employs him in the opera.  Meanwhile, Lindsey’s slender frame and boyish good looks fit his character perfectly, with a strong tenor voice that proved well-suited to his role.

One other singer in a secondary role deserves special mention.  Appearing in only a couple of scenes, bass Brent Michael Smith was “Billy Jackrabbit,” the Indian of the group (with apologies to ex-Mothers of Invention’s Jimmy Carl Black).  Despite the fact this is pretty much a throwaway role, Smith made the most of his brief first- and second-act appearances.  One would hope to see him in more prominent roles before very long.

The set, created by R. Keith Brumley (with lighting by Barry Steele), provided an imaginative use of space.  As expected in such a compact venue, the stage itself is relatively shallow as measured from the proscenium rearward.  Brumley’s design included flooring laid over roughly 50 percent of the orchestra pit—this left a center square open for the music to “leak out”—that helped extend the stage out into the semi-circular apron to within just a few feet of the front row of seats.  A cozy theater was thereby rendered even more intimate, as if a troupe of singers had stopped by to perform in one’s front parlor.

Stage director David Gately used this extra space with great creativity, having the apron serve as the Act I main barroom floor and the Act III campfire setting.  Since no self-respecting Western is without its bar fight— Puccini orchestrated a doozy for early in the opera, which comes to an abrupt end via some attention-getting gunfire—Gately and his assistant Michael Yeshion crafted a well-choreographed brawl that utilized every inch of space while ensuring that none of the singers went tumbling into the pit.  And considering the twenty-plus miners involved in everything from card-playing to drinking to letter-writing to all-out carousing, Gately’s finely tuned sensibilities never allowed any of this activity to distract from the business at hand—the singing.

That’s not to say things went flawlessly.  Conductor David Neely found it challenging to prevent the music coming out of the pit from overpowering the singers, especially since Puccini’s scoring calls for a larger-than-average orchestra.  Irmiter’s Jack Rance was victimized a couple of times by an over-exuberant brass section, despite the fact he owns anything but an underpowered vocal instrument.  It could be that the psychology of performing in such intimate surroundings renders a singer less likely to feel the need to project much beyond 30 feet or so.  Meanwhile, an orchestra sequestered below stage level finds itself less likely to possess adequate spatial awareness of the size of the venue.  This was but a minor annoyance, however, and Maestro Neely was otherwise in fine command of his very talented musicians.
Des Moines Metro Opera will present La fanciulla del West twice more this season, as well as additional performances of its other two festival offerings: Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Janáček’s Jenůfa.  The festival continues through mid-July, and further details are available via the opera company’s website.  The company has already announced next year’s summer festival program, which will include Falstaff (Verdi), Manon (Massenet) and Orfeo (Gluck) and run from June 24 through July 17, 2016. 

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