Opera Holland Park Fanciulla

La Fanciulla del West – Opera in three acts [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Minnie – Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs
Dick – Ravil Atlas
Jack Rance – Oli Sigurdarson
Nick – Ivan Matiakh
Ashby – Nicholas Todorovic
Sonora – Charles Johnston
Larkens – Marcos Carvalho
Jake Wallace – Timothy Dawkins
Trin – Lee David Bowen
Sid – Stephen Wells
Bello – Njabulo Madlala
Happy – Howard Wong
Joe – Kevin Kyle
Harry – Jonas Gudmunsson
Wowkle – Nicola Stonehouse
Billy Jackrabbit – Dominic Barrand
Jose Castro – David Woloszko
Postillion – Andrew Buchanan

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
John Gibbons

Director – Jo Davies
Designer – Will Bowen
Lighting – Mark Doubleday

Reviewed by: Paul Hutchinson

Reviewed: 10 June, 2004
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

La Fanciulla del West was Puccini’s seventh opera. It came six years after Madama Butterfly, and received its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in December 1910 and received ecstatic reviews. In spite of this, the opera has never quite enjoyed the popularity of Puccini’s Tosca, La Bohème, Turandot and, indeed, Butterfly. So it is with grateful thanks that Holland Park Opera has made Fanciulla its second new production of the 2004 Season.

There is a marked difference in Fanciulla to Puccini’s previous works. It is doesn’t have their ‘operatic’ formatting. Arias and duets lie on the same harmonic level, as it were, as the music either side of them; for instance, Jack Rance’s arioso “Minnie, della mia casa”, in which he tells Minnie of his loveless life; and, in Act Two, when Dick Johnson explains to Minnie (who now knows his real identity) why he became a bandit, the music for his aria doesn’t separate out in the way one might expect.

Such an integral way of composing is not off-putting, though, far from it. Fanciulla is full of human warmth. The ‘Wild West’ setting is at a miner’s camp, the miners themselves are all differentiated characters creating a homely, even folksy atmosphere at the Saloon where its doughty proprietor, Minnie, holds the fort, reads the Bible to them, and looks after both them and the gold they wrest from the ground.

Fanciulla is a rewarding piece and should come over the footlights to envelop the audience. Strange to relate that this first-night performance did that rarely; only in the last act did it come fully to life. The cast though is a fine one. Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs’s Minnie may look slim and pretty in Act One, but by Act Two her authority and her anger at being duped by Dick Johnson was totally convincing. Oli Sigurdarson as Rance looked not much different from the rest of the miners, in spite of his being Sheriff, but his menacing of Johnson in Acts One and Three was real – and he sang well and with conviction. The Dick Johnson of Ravil Atlas was sympathetic despite battling with a throat infection. He sang decently, carefully husbanding his strength.

Some scenes in the Saloon didn’t register as they should: the Bible-reading episode holds unrealised promise (it wasn’t hushed enough); and the game of poker between Minnie and Rance in Act Two didn’t catch fire, either. Only Act Three with its nail-biting climax with the lynch-mob, Minnie’s Valkyrie-like entrance, Johnson’s aria and Minnie’s sermon and farewell to the miners fully delivered. John Gibbons conducts with customary authority. No doubt future performances will deliver the suggested promise.

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