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Deborah Voigt Tames the Wild West

San Francisco
War Memorial
06/09/2010 -  and June 12, 15, 18, 24, 27, 29, July 2 2010
Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Deborah Voigt (Minnie), Salvatore Licitra (Dick Johnson a.k.a. Ramerrez), Roberto Frontali (Jack Rance), Steven Cole (Nick), Timothy Mix (Sonora), Kevin Langan (Ashby), Brian Jagde (Joe), David Lomelí (Harry), Matthew O’Neill (Trin), Austin Kness (Handsome), Kenneth Overton (Sid), Trevor Scheunemann (Jake Wallace), Igor Vieira (Happy), Brian Leerhuber (Larkens), Maya Lahyani (Wowkle), Jeremy Milner (Billy Jackrabbit), Christopher Jackson (Pony Express Rider), Bojan Kneževiċ (José Castro)
San Francisco Opera Chorus, Ian Robertson (Chorus Director), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Nicola Luisotti*/Giuseppe Finzi (Conductor)
Lorenzo Mariani (Director), Maurizio Balò (Set Designer), Gabriel Berry (Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Jonathan Rider (Fight Choreographer), Gerd Mairandres (Wig and Makeup Designer)

(© Cory Weaver)

When one hears the name “Puccini”, the mind immediately transitions to La Bohème, Tosca or Madama Butterfly while we’re swept away to the distant cities of Paris, Rome and Nagasaki, but the subsequent opera Giacomo Puccini had in mind spanned the globe far away to North America. A stone’s throw from San Francisco is the awesome backbone of California called the Sierra Nevada. Adapted from David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West (1905), it is in those mountains of our home state that we find a new Puccini emerging in La Fanciulla del West that premiered at The Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910.

Maintaining much of his coloring from earlier pieces, Puccini ventured into new territory, influenced by the likes of Claude Debussy (specifically Pelléas et Mélisande), Paul Dukas and Richard Strauss. It’s an undeniable truth that Puccini’s Golden State opera is unlike anything else. La Fanciulla del West has a swashbuckling élan that is dashing, sparkling, refreshing, exciting and mystically American West. No where do we see such novel inventions brought to stage, making this opera appear more like a thrilling Western movie adventure than a theatrical performance.

Although in today’s repertoire, La Fanciulla del West is often forgotten and infrequently performed and with great regret. In fact, San Francisco Opera has not staged this Puccini work since 1979, and we warmly welcome its return to the West Coast. One of the challenges in staging this work is the need of a strong cast with tremendous vocal and acting abilities.

Unlike in his earlier operas, Puccini extends the first act of La Fanciulla del West in which he uses the gold miners as a platform to build upon the plot and development of the three principal characters: Minnie, Jack Rance and Dick Johnson (a.k.a. Ramerrez). In less than a minute Puccini craftily sets the scene with a flashy orchestration of horns, timpani and harp, to name a few, that draws us back to the gold rush of 1849. The curtain opens to Maurizio Balò’s stunning set of precipitous cliffs bathed in Duane Schuler’s red sandstone sky silhouetting selected men hanging precariously from single ropes, supposedly (yet most likely symbolically) mining for the treasured ore.

Melodies begin and end in nanoseconds, making the listener depart from complacency and pay attention to the action and music. Within the second minute of the music the mountain of miners fades into the background as the Polka saloon squeakily rolls into place by selected Coolies and notable props are positioned for subsequent use. The men’s chorus under the direction of Ian Robertson is a powerful linchpin in moving along the story line with the facets of individual miners unraveling faster than a speeding bullet. During this time we are witness to Kenneth Overton’s strident actions of the card cheating Sid, to the woeful minstrel bars of Scheunemann’s Jake Wallace that ultimately sends the near neurotic Larkens packing his bags while Timothy Mix throws rebellious mockeries at Jack Rance with forthright masculinity. The chorus is a tour de force in this production.

The culmination of miners’ mayhem is suddenly stopped with the grand entrance of the heroine, Minnie, showcasing the incomparable Deborah Voigt. This also marks another milestone in the dramatic soprano’s career. She sings the role of the female protagonist for the very first time. Puccini’s “Annie Oakley” has requisites that few women will ever achieve. Mother figure, bible teacher, financial custodian, saloon proprietor and lover are all woven into this complex yet rather down to earth figure. Deborah Voigt can be added to the list of singers who have tamed the Wild West in unaffected and unembellished fashion.

Firstly, this role is exceedingly taxing vocally since the range of notes endlessly bounces on both ends. Secondly, the melodramatic Act II demands a woman of sustainability both in action and motion. Thirdly, Minnie is a character that must delicately satisfy the many sides of a female scarcely found during that particular time and place. It is a set of unusual circumstances, yet Deborah Voigt conservatively delivers on all levels which, in turn, gives us comfort, security, hope and love. She is a crowd pleaser.

Operas’ traditional “love triangle” is certainly no exception within La Fanciulla del West in which Minnie develops an amorous relationship with the repentant Ramerrez, sung with dynamic brilliancy by debuting dramatic tenor Salvatore Licitra while the third leg of the web is handled superbly by returning Italian baritone Roberto Frontali. A concentrated career in refining characters within Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi masterpieces, Frontali’s rendition of the lustful sheriff is a logical and fitting progression in this sensational tripartite.

Orchestration plays an important role in La Fanciulla del West by moving along plot and narrative with multi levels of instrumental magnitude. Nicola Luisotti exceeds all expectations and perceptions by connecting all the dots on the artistic plane.

Since Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is true verismo in its own right, Maurizio Balò’s visions include a real burning campfire in Act III along with the flakes in the snowstorm of Act II while the final scene of the opera features Deborah Voigt mounted on top of a live white horse. This literal horsepower pulls an open framed Conestoga Wagon into the background with Minnie and Dick Johnson holding the reigns. As a rift in the Cloudy Mountains widens to display an idyllic representation of nearby Yosemite, bathed in pale golden rays, the chorus returns once again to the miners’ opening melody, singing their final solemn notes. A bittersweet ending.

Seventh in a string of wondrous Puccini operas, La Fanciulla del West is a work unlike any other. San Francisco Opera’s production has top notch singing and acting. It will delight opera lovers on all levels and keep the audience on edge from beginning to end.

Christie Grimstad



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