Nashville Opera concludes its 2011-12 season this weekend, and the company isn't taking the easy way home. Giacomo Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) is one of the composer's lesser works, particularly compared to blockbusters like La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Yet even with the absence of familiar arias or the typically compelling melodrama of most repertory staples, this opus offers some interesting history, a very challenging experimental score and a story set in the American West, featuring flesh-and-blood characters.
"It's different," says director John Hoomes, "and one reason it's rarely done is that it's about a bunch of singing cowboys. This was Puccini's follow-up to Butterfly. In it you can hear elements of Turandot, which was to come years later. Plus the composer was experimenting with Wagner, as well as with styles of Western American songs, such as camp minstrels."
The careful listener will also discern the influence of Strauss and Debussy in the piece's rich orchestrations, and those modernistic touches lend themselves to worthy harmonic surprises. Act 3's "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano" is probably the score's most famous aria. The late Act 1 duet combining "Io non son che una povera fanciulla" and "Quello che tacete" has meanwhile gained fame because many people speculate Andrew Lloyd Webber ripped off the tune for Phantom's "Music of the Night." (Listen closely and you'll hear a strong similarity.)
La Fanciulla was written in Italian but never embraced in Italy. Yet its beginnings were auspicious enough: a 1910 debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera House starring the tenor Enrico Caruso, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Other great tenors, like Placido Domingo and Richard Tucker, have starred in the piece, and the Met produced a version a little over a year ago in celebration of the opera's 100th birthday.
Set in a California mining camp during the gold rush of 1849, La Fanciulla features a libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civinini, based on a play by legendary American theatrical producer David Belasco, who also adapted the short story Puccini used as the basis for Butterfly. (La Fanciulla also inspired various films, most notably a 1938 Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald vehicle with music by light opera standard-bearer Sigmund Romberg.)
In the love triangle plot, local sheriff Jack Rance declares his affection for Minnie, the feisty saloon owner. Meanwhile, Rance searches for an outlaw named Ramerrez, who takes on a new identity as Dick Johnson. Ramerrez meets Minnie, and they fall in love.
Committed to avoiding any hint of campiness, Hoomes and Barry Steele have designed show settings that visually aim for the stark spaghetti Westerns of filmmaker Sergio Leone. La Fanciulla's three-dimensional characters will be reinforced by rear projections and videos designed to relate a fable of the mythic West.
The cast numbers nearly 40, almost all of them male. Fortunately, Hoomes' key female appears ready to take her place as a gutsy woman among men.
"Traditionally, Minnie might be cast to look like Doris Day or Betty Hutton," says Hoomes, recalling two of the Hollywood musical's high-profile 1950s-era blondes. "We've gone against that in casting Othalie Graham."
The Canadian-born Graham is of Jamaican descent, and her casting fits with the melting-pot diversity of the Old West's most rugged locales. Furthermore, she is statuesque and elegant, and has a strong background singing Puccini's Turandot, with a voice that comfortably works the low and middle ranges and can stretch to high C.
"She is one of the few sopranos who can sing this piece and survive," Hoomes boasts. "She is one of only a handful of opera singers who have the power."
Meanwhile, tenor Roy Cornelius Smith will handle the Dick Johnson role, which he first performed with Chicago's Lyric Opera in early 2011. Smith debuted with Nashville Opera in 2010 in Andrea Chenier.
Malcolm MacKenzie brings his resonant baritone to the role of the sheriff. Like Graham, he is making his Nashville Opera debut.
Hoomes characterizes the period leading up to opening night as "fearful and very challenging. ... It's more like a play set to music, and that has required lots of rehearsal time. For the top roles you need a strong group, because it's a difficult opera to sing. Fortunately, we have Roy, and Malcolm's voice fits the part of Rance like a glove."
The Nashville Symphony will provide the accompaniment, conducted by Dean Williamson, formerly artistic director of Opera Cleveland.
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