It’s a pity the otherwise stimulating Glimmerglass festival lacks a new American opera this summer: While composer Stephen Hartke had one in the offing, he didn’t deliver in time. But there is at least one alternative: Puccini’s deliciously exotic opera La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), set in the “Cloudy Mountains” of gold-rush California. True, the work had its premiere in 1910 at the Metropolitan, and no one would mistake the score for anything but a full-blooded Italian opera. But the subject matter is a tilted variation on Americana: Witness a grizzled forty-niner advance to the bar of the Polka Saloon, lay down his six-shooter, and demand, “Whiskey per tutti!” The music is similarly inflected with local flavor, with Puccini blending his own aesthetic with American folk tunes, folk dances, Indian chants, and a few rip-roaring choruses of “Doo-da-day.” Mostly the amalgam succeeds wonderfully well. Some Puccini connoisseurs even consider The Girl to be his most musically adventurous and dramatically mature opera.
“For once, a Puccini heroine is not a pathetic victim destroyed by fate but a spunky woman.”
In any case, it’s good to see the work getting more attention these days, and the Glimmerglass production, which will come to the City Opera next spring, treats the piece carefully and with much affection. Minnie is the center of attention, a Puccini heroine who for once is not a pathetic victim destroyed by fate but a spunky, resourceful, yet vulnerable woman who knows her own worth and finally gets her man, even if she has to cheat at poker to do it. Emily Pulley explores most every facet of this volatile character with a useful soprano that can deliver a power punch as well as a caressing phrase, and she gives a compelling performance.
As Dick Johnson, the reluctant bandit who eventually turns straight and rides off into the sunset with Minnie, Roger Honeywell cuts a handsome figure, although his lyric tenor finds the role’s strenuous requirements a bit of a stretch, while Earle Patriarco captures Sheriff Jack Rance’s troubled, ambiguous nature by mixing the right amounts of villainy and despair. Designer John Conklin has devised a basic set that shows just about everything the opera needs and crams it all onstage at once: a saloon cluttered with detritus from the miners’ broken lives, a gigantic mine shaft, Minnie’s cozy log cabin, and a huge panoramic backdrop of Californian mountain splendor. It presents the singers with a dangerous obstacle course, but Lillian Groag’s fluid direction still manages to be a marvel of theatrical clarity, and conductor Stewart Robertson never lets the musical tension sag.
The production that actually replaces the originally scheduled Hartke opera is Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur. It’s a work that will still have a contemporary feel for most audiences, despite having been first performed back in 1965. In those days, Bennett was one of the bright young hopes of British music, a composer who wrote prolifically in every medium and in a variety of styles, from astringent postmodern concert works to lush romantic film scores like the one for Murder on the Orient Express (he also plays a mean cabaret piano). His music for The Mines of Sulphur is cast in a gritty but eminently accessible twelve-tone idiom that sounds closer to Benjamin Britten than to Alban Berg. It’s a fluently paced, dramatically charged score full of brilliant instrumental detail and canny theatrical underlining, all of it cleverly calculated to complement the eerie mood of Beverley Cross’s strikingly original libretto. Set in England’s West Country around 1760, the plot deftly crosses Poe with Pirandello to create a horror tale steeped in irony and a skewed perception of reality. Three wastrels invade the home of a rich landowner, kill him, and meet a terrible doom at the hands of a ghostly troupe of plague-ridden actors who mysteriously appear at the manor house to reenact the crime and infect the murderers with poison from “the mines of sulphur” (a quote from Othello and a metaphor for moral corruption). Under David Schweizer’s direction, the cast is led by Brandon Jovanovich as Boconnion, the renegade soldier who perpetrates the crime; Beth Clayton as Rosalind, his mistreated paramour; and Caroline Worra as Jenny, the troupe’s leading actress and principal plague carrier. Not a glance, a vocal gesture, or a movement is wasted in creating the creepy atmosphere of this crafty theater piece, which unfolds like a bad dream in set designer James Noone’s rotting mansion, a spare suggestion rather than a literal representation, and in Stewart Robertson’s clear presentation of the score’s diamantine orchestration.
Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s timelessly relevant send-up of aesthetic fashions and fads, concludes the season on a high. A self-confessed novice at G&S, director Tazewell Thompson honors the period flavor of the piece and never monkeys with its basic performance traditions while still managing to make all the nonsense seem fresh and new. The action remains securely in touch with Victorian England’s pre-Raphaelite craze, but Thompson encourages the cast to risk it all, pulling back just in time before the satire topples over and becomes a parody of itself. It’s a dazzling tour de force—the Gilbertian barbs and lunatic situations have seldom seemed more hilarious, while the performance’s musical and visual qualities reach a disciplined level only a few G&S shows attain these days. Patience is also on its way to the City Opera, and devoted Savoyards are in for a treat.