It seems wild horses--well, ok...gentle ones--did drag people in substantial numbers to Knoxville Opera's production of La fanciulla del West at its opening Friday evening at the Tennessee Theatre. Fortunately for everyone, though, the horses, which made an appearance in Act III for the purposes of the hero and heroine riding off into the...sunrise, were merely a satisfying visual bonus. The real honors of the evening went to an ingeniously crafted production directed by Anthony Laciura, Giacomo Puccini's surprisingly continuous "modern" score given vibrancy by conductor Brian Salesky and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and a reasonably solid vocal cast.
La fanciulla del West, based on the play Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco, had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in December of 1910 with tenor Enrico Caruso in the cast and Arturo Toscanini conducting. Since that time, the opera has been one of the least performed of Puccini's last eight mature works for reasons that either make one a fan of it, or a detractor. On the downside, its plot, a love triangle story set in a California mining camp amidst 1850s gold rush miners and old West bad guys, is unabashedly melodramatic. This milieu, when combined with Italian romantic lyricism, admittedly requires a willful surrender to the genre on the part of the audience. And, the presence of stereotyped Native American characters, Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit, is today hopelessly socially incorrect and apt to make audiences a tad uncomfortable. On the upside, though, is the amazingly engaging Puccini score that draws the listener in with its melodic freshness and inventive harmonic complexity tinged with the textures of 20th Century dissonance.
Returning to Knoxville Opera in the leading roles were tenor Manrico Tedeschi and soprano Carter Scott, last seen in the 2008 production of La Forza del Destino. Scott, singing her first Minnie, the kindhearted Polka Saloon owner, was a joy in the role--a role she could conceivably own should she choose. Her vocal strength is considerable, yet her most beautiful moments were those in which that strength, carefully controlled, became a luscious warm softness that suited her character. Dramatically, Scott's Minnie was a wealth of patient strength and purpose that hid her almost heartbreaking and sweet vulnerability.
Minnie, of course, falls in love with the stranger Dick Johnson, who is actually the bandit Ramerrez--a bad guy who really wasn't. Tedeschi's Dick Johnson showed some moments of lyrical beauty, including forceful forays into his surprisingly smooth upper range. Unfortunately, though, he seemed conflicted, perhaps even unsure what emotion might spring forth next from his voice. While Tedeschi's build and commanding presence suited the image of a heroic character, sadly his dramatic portrayal of Johnson was stiff, emotionally barren, and strangely humorless.
The third side of Fanciulla's love triangle is the character of Jack Rance, the local sheriff, who is a determined suitor for Minnie's affections and willing to go to any lengths to gain them. No stranger to villain roles, baritone Scott Bearden, seen last April as Iago in KO's Otello, gave Rance every bit of the melodramatic bad guy--not to mention the vocal richness--the role deserved.
As one might expect given Laciura's history of comprimario tenor roles at the Metropolitan Opera, the background characters inhabiting the mining camp were solidly fleshed out and interesting individuals. A real standout here, both vocally and dramatically, was Brian Joyce in the role of Nick, the bartender of Minnie's saloon. It's probably not surprising to learn, then, that the role of Nick was Laciura's at the Met for 16 performances when Fanciulla had a run there in the early 90s. Other notable secondary roles came from some familiar faces and voices from previous KO productions: Jesse Stock (Jake), Harry House (Harry), and Boris Van Druff (Trinidad Joe).
Whatever magic that has occurred that has allowed Knoxville Opera to acquire the sets it has this season -- is magic to be applauded. This production's set, designed by Keith Brumley for the Utah Festival Opera Company, may have wallowed a bit in the details of melodramatic fancy, but it sized the action nicely and worked well for channeling Laciura's stage movement in the right directions.
Knoxville Opera's production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West has a final performance Sunday afternoon at 2:30 at the Tennessee Theatre.