Monday, June 24

La Fanciulla Del West – Opéra de Lyon

Puccini is renowned for serving up negative consequences for his leading female characters, so it was with some relief and pleasant surprise that in what he considered his best opera, this Wild West girl decides who she wants and gets it, gun in hand. Created in 1910 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, this is its first presentation in Lyon with conductor Daniele Rustioni passionately matching the vitality of the music to the violent and elementary feelings unravelling on stage under the direction of Tatjana Gürbaca as we explore questions about justice, forgiveness, and love.

During the California Gold Rush in a frontier mining town populated by ruthless bandits and tough-talking but good-hearted miners, remarkable female tavern-keeper Minnie (Chiara Isotton), the miners, and the cynical sheriff, Jack Rance (Claudio Sgura), enjoy an evening of drinking and card games in the Polka Saloon. A stranger arrives and introduces himself as Dick Johnson (Riccardo Massi); unbeknownst to Minnie, he is really the notorious bandit Ramerrez in disguise.

Johnson visits Minnie at her cabin in the mountains. When Jack Rance demands that Minnie hand over the bandit, she challenges him to a high-stakes game of poker in which she gets the result she wants but later when Johnson is captured by a posse, she is going to have to use all her feminine guile to save the man she loves.

Before we consider the principals, there is a superb support cast who equally deserve a mention –bartender Nick (Robert Lewis); Wells Fargo agent Ashby (Rafał Pawnuk); miners Sonora (Allen Boxer), Sid (Matthew Toulouse), Trin (Zwakele Tshabalala), Bello (Ramiro Maturana), Harry (Léo Vermot-Desroches), Joe (Valentin Thill), Happy (Florent Karrer), and Larkens (Pete Thanapat); Red Indian Billy Jack Rabbit (Kwang Soun Kim) and his squaw Wowkle (Thandiswa Mpongwana); travelling minstrel Jack Wallace (Paweł Trojak); bandit Jose Castro (Paolo Stupenengo); and the pony express rider (Didier Rousselas) – who in turn and in combination delivered strong performances that really brought this operatic spaghetti Western opera to life.

The fantastic ensemble, under the direction of Benedict Kearns, and orchestra, both of Lyon Opera, harmoniously combine – no better than the rousing choruses in Act III – with Rustioni’s guiding us through melodies that whilst hinting at the influence of Debussy and Strauss, still retain distinct Puccini motifs.

Marc Weeger’s set design captures the distinct feeling of the Old West whilst Dinah Ehm’s costumes match not only this mood but help us decipher the array of characters on stage.  With Gürbaca’s inspired staging cleverly using a revolving set to seamlessly move us between the tavern, mountain retreat, and mountain hideaways, in parallel Stefan Bolliger’s lighting smoothly accents the passage of time.

But it is the principals who lead the way in every sense of the word. Sgura captures the cynicism of the sheriff driven by jealousy and an unrequited love, all expressed through a powerful vocal and understated performance. Massi excels as the bandit turned by love but struggling to escape his past with a strong and moving vocal capturing the internal conflict as love conquers all. Isotton captivatingly captures the anguish of Minnie’s outward brashness against the inner softness of a woman who wants to love and be loved, and in doing so demonstrating the power of her own instrument and vocal range. Individually these three excelled; in combination they soared. Bravo!

They say the New World was just a beginning: let’s hope it’s the same for this production and a European tour deservedly follows before perhaps a trip West…

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 31st March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.