Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is, one suspects, one of those works that modern audiences struggle to keep a straight face through. The hero, for a start, decides to call himself Dick Johnson. The piece’s Wild West trappings, long since staled into Hollywood cliché, still seem a strange fit for the operatic stage (it was performed here as The Girl of the Golden West, with Kelley Rourke’s translation delivered in a variety of American accents). The redemptive, into-the-sunset conclusion takes for granted a belief that capitalism in its most primitive, brutal form could leave a group of hardened Gold Rush miners capable of forgiveness. That it might have done, ENO’s programme told us, is not actually that wide of the mark, historically speaking. But we still rely heavily on Puccini’s score — so bracing in its wide-open vistas, but also so warm, melodic and irresistibly seductive — to shoot down our cynicism and disbelief.
Richard Jones is a director occasionally prone to cynicism himself, but while the heart of his new production for ENO is — thankfully — some way from its sleeve, it has an unapologetic sincerity and warmth, and the simplicity and beauty he brings to the final scene is utterly disarming. Throughout, though, the sharpness of his observations and the discipline and detail of the staging keep mushiness at bay.
Sure, it’s updated somewhat arbitrarily to the director’s favoured period, roughly mid-20th century, with a few negative knock-on effects. The downside of the clarity of Jones’s style is that it tends to highlight any conceptual edges that are left blurred. In Miriam Buether’s set, Minnie’s cabin looks too well appointed, the floor of its mezzanine level too solid for Johnson’s blood to drip through. As Johnson, Peter Auty is encouraged to smile and emote too much, occasionally suggesting more travelling salesman than bandit. Something more creative might also have been done with the awkward racial stereotypes.
There are nits to pick, then, but they are swept away by the generosity of the show as a whole, at whose centre is the quite wonderful playing of the ENO orchestra, which captures the score’s pulsating cinematic tension and sweep. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts unfussily but brilliantly, her interpretation thrillingly urgent. Susan Bullock makes for a mature Minnie, but a no less affecting one as a result, ruled by grown-up desires rather than immature dreams. The very top of her voice is frayed and unlovely now, and the basic sound is short on Puccinian warmth, but her performance is moving in its absolute sincerity and commitment. Auty’s tenor is perhaps the bigger problem, lacking the necessary bite and focus, and becoming thin and croony at the top. Craig Colclough makes a solidly sinister Rance, and the many other parts are vividly taken, Graham Clark’s on-edge Nick in particular. The men’s chorus is terrific.
Welsh National Opera’s second new production of the season, David Pountney’s staging of Rossini’s remarkable Mosè in Egitto, is not as new as it might be, borrowing the two moveable chunks of scaffolding (sets by Raimund Bauer) that were the main feature of his recent Guillaume Tell. Here they hold what look like two climbing walls, one red and one blue — colour coding that is also hinted at in the costumes of the Hebrews and Egyptians. This is all we have, along with a billowing blue sheet, to represent the Red Sea, parted in the brief, climactic third act. It’s all pretty basic. But it’s also strikingly effective, with Fabrice Kebour’s lighting — or total lack of it in the opening scene — playing an important role. Pountney inspires absolute conviction in his largely young cast: they believe in it, and so do we.
Much of what goes on in this azione tragico-sacra, with a regulation love story grafted on to a primary-school simplification of Exodus, feels largely unimportant. The exceptions are the key moments for Moses himself (Miklós Sebestyén, singing with oak-voiced nobility), whose music is movingly sincere and straightforward. Those characteristics come and go in the rest of the score, but the level of invention is astonishingly high. Highlights include a beautiful quartet, in which four voices sing exquisitely about voicelessness, and the last-act prayer, which might have retained its popularity had Verdi and his ‘Va, pensiero’ not come along.
WNO has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast. Claire Booth is a revelation as Elcia. Andrew Foster-Williams brings agility and weight to Pharaoh’s music. Christine Rice sings luxuriously as his wife; the tenor David Alegret sings the son fearlessly, even if the tone is a little thin. The chorus and orchestra are outstanding once more, while conductor Carlo Rizzi’s love for the music comes through in every bar.
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