Another chance at the last-chance saloon

Tonight with D to Opera Australia’s La Fanciulla del West.

This is the first time I have seen this opera. I don’t know when it was last done in Sydney but not, I think, in my active opera-going years.

I guess it just gets crowded out by the more well-known Puccinis (say, Tosca, La Boheme, Madam Butterfly, Turandot, Manon Lescaut and even Il Trittico and (in a concert performance only) La Rondine in my experience. It is charming, if a bit mawkish. Musically, it doesn’t pack quite the punch of the more famous ones, but there are definitely moments. I was absolutely seduced by the melancholy song sung by the “camp minstrel” as the men all thought of their loved ones left behind. This is a miners’ wild west rather than a settlers’ one – the only Indians are peaceful and hoping to get married the new-fangled way.

Minnie is the eponymous “Girl of the Golden West” – the only [white] woman at a miners’ camp, where she is loved and respected by all – she even runs a kind of Sunday school (text from psalm 51). As somebody else has tweeted, this provides one of the key lines of the libretto: there is no one who cannot be saved (or words to that effect).

Minnie falls for a bandit, who has come, disguised as “Dick Johnson,” to rob the miners of all of their gold. This has been entrusted to Minnie for safe keeping at the Polka Saloon when the sheriff and a posse of miners have gone out to hunt the bandit down. “Dick Johnson” falls for Minnie and doesn’t take the gold. Is he a reformed man?

Though loved by all, Minnie has never been kissed. She has repelled the (fairly repellent: he is John Wegner) advances of the sheriff. He still has a wife back home, though he says he was not missed when he walked out on her. Minnie says she is saving herself for the one lifelong true love. She gives her first kiss to Dick Johnson when he comes later to see her at her little house on the prairie (so to speak).

Minnie hides Johnson when a party come looking for him but tells him to leave when she discovers he is indeed the bandit (and he has another lover). After he leaves, he is shot by the sheriff and she gives him refuge. This is the next key line: “You can’t die; you are the first man I have kissed.”

The sheriff returns and detects Johnson’s presence (blood dripping from the roof where he is hiding). Minnie challenges the sheriff to a game of poker (if she loses he can have Johnson and her) which she wins by cheating. Oddly, the sheriff honours the deal (a surprise because it’s an untwisting of Tosca and Scarpia).

Johnson is nevertheless apprehended and is to be strung up. Minnie bursts in armed and demands justice. This is the third key moment in the opera, because justice is not simply punishment for Dick, but also something owed to Minnie (mercy for Dick) on account of how much she has done for all of the men at the camp. (Remember, they all love and respect her.) Of course, he still has to leave town, and they head off into a technicolour sunset. THE END.

This is an unusual opera and different in one vital respect from the more famous Puccini operas. First, aside from Minnie and her native indian servant, the characters are all men. And nobody dies.

D probably experienced it the best way. Not having read the synopsis, he was convinced at the second interval that Minnie and Dick would both end up dead (remember: Tosca). When it all ended happily, he was moved to tears of relief.

The production has been billed as a bit of a spaghetti western. Diana Simmonds’ write up gives an accurate summary of its principal aspects. I especially liked the ingenious fusion of back-projected and leaf-blower-projected snow flakes (the latter coming in through the door of the little house), and the way in which, when back projected in faint and contrasty black and white at certain points of the action, Minnie and Dick looked just like silent movie hero and heroine.

Opera Australia made a bit of a thing of inviting a posse of twitterers on free tickets. I haven’t followed up the fruits of this, though it was evident from the state of the house that they didn’t suffer any shortage of seats to give away (they were offering up to 9 double tickets). If it continues so empty, I shall certainly endeavour to see it again. I was utterly beguiled. Which is not to say that the first act, amidst the sentimentality, did not also set up the Western premiss of a near-Hobbesian state of nature – lonely men, far from home, desperate for gold and jealously guarding it in a lawless territory. Minnie’s beauty and kindness are the men’s relief from hardship, and so the impetus for the reward her love is granted.

Carlo Barricelli as Dick Johnson came across better than he did in Cavaradossi in Tosca. D said “He’s got a big voice but he’s not all that good a singer.” D is a harsh judge – he expects perfection. It may partly be that, not knowing the work so well as Tosca, singerly shortfalls didn’t trouble me,. though even I noticed a few hairy moments, particularly his final vocal pas-de-deux with Minnie.

John Wegner possibly over-used his repertoire of villanous baritronics: the backward and upward tilt of the head and roll of the eyes to show the whites; the lecherous slouch. I’m not sure if the sheriff really needs to be as bad as that.

It’s really Minnie’s show. Anke Anke Höppner acquitted herself well in a role of her own at last, even if this was owing to the indisposition/incapacity of Lisa Gasteen and despite a short-sleeved outfit when receiving Dick at her little house which, what with the snow and the Ansel Adams-ish mountainous backdrop, made me chilly just to watch her. It remains a bit of a mystery to me why Opera Australia has for some time only seemed to use her as a high-quality cover.

Orchestral playing was lush under Arvo Vollmer (it helps that I sit very close) with Debussyish sinews of paired oboes and other wind instruments reminiscing Pelleas & M. I always like Barry Ryan (Sonora, a miner). In his baritone mode he seems to be working up a type of rather grave gent.

I haven’t dared tell D that we missed A Little Night Music a couple of weeks earlier owing to a terrible oversight on my part (I spent the night at home boning up on Die Walkure). This last happened to me with the MTC Cherry Orchard for which, in a burst of sophistication, I had bought myself and my elder sister tickets at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown in 1973. It’s never a nice feeling. I thought of getting back on the horse this time and buying fresh tickets (there was still time) but in light of the lukewarm reception (at best) from others I decided it might be more a question of rolling another cheese down the hill, and let it pass.

So this evening marked the resumption for me of the Opera’s 2010 Sydney season. It was good to have them back.

One Response to “Another chance at the last-chance saloon”

  1. Life goes on « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Stumbling on melons « Another chance at the last-chance saloon […]

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