hero and the sparkplug: (l-r) Honeywell and Pulley in
La Fanciullo Del West.
Fistful of Opera
Fanciulla Del West
Opera, July 11
Following the huge successes of La Boheme, Tosca
and Madama Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini set his sights
on the American West. Adapted from a successful stage play
in the early 1900s, La Fanciulla Del West is set at
a prospecting camp amid the 1850s California Gold Rush. The
opera was wildly successful when it debuted in New York in
1910, with the entire season of performances sold out weeks
before the opening. After the hoopla, though, the work has
languished in relative obscurity.
Puccini in the Wild West. If that sounds weird to you, you
gotta see it. La Fanciulla Del West is the original
spaghetti western. With the hyper-realistic sets and costumes
and the stock characters, Glimmerglass’s production often
seemed like a Roy Rogers movie dubbed in Italian. Glorious,
full-throated, raise-the-rafters Italian. Even the two minor
Native American characters let fly a couple of times with
The movie analogy is more than apt. Unlike most operas (including
Puccini’s), this one didn’t have any arias, where the action
stops and one or two characters sing a self-contained song,
usually expressing one thought, for interminable minutes that
can seem like hours. Here the entire work consisted of dialogue,
straight script, all of it sung to Puccini’s soaring, melodic
Even by Glimmerglass standards, this was a big production.
A 56-member orchestra was crammed into the pit and the gorgeous
and busy ramshackle set filled up the entire stage, top to
bottom (the set got its own ovation when the curtain rose).
The first scene had at least 25 actors on the stage, and featured
a fight scene (over a card cheat) that, considering the crowd
and clutter on the stage, was a logistical miracle. And an
artistic one as well.
As literature, La Fanciullo is a little thin, which
may explain its lack of legs over the years. It’s a melodrama,
with a dime-store novel story of redemption brought to bear
by a sparkplug libertine named Minnie, who, of course, can
out-shoot, out drink, and out-cuss any of the lovable rogues
at the mining camp. And Minnie has never been kissed! Until
the second act! But it’s that familiarity of the story and
its characters when interposed with the wildly romantic score
that make the production so absolutely delightful.
Soprano Emily Pulley’s job was to carry the play, and she
did this in spades. Pulley’s Minnie was dead-on, and arias
or no, she provided the best shivers of the afternoon and
the biggest laughs. Her romantic interest, Dick Johnson, was
played by Roger Honeywell, whose lower register singing was
often overwhelmed by the orchestra. Despite this, and despite
his uncanny resemblance to Will Farrell, Honeywell was dashing
and passionate, and when he sang in the mid- to upper registers,
a devastatingly good singer.
Tricks, Vocal Treats
George Opera Festival, July 7, 8
Few surprises marred the surface of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir
d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, as performed by the Lake
George Opera Festival. This opera, which dates from 1832,
was as unremarkable then as it is now, but it’s what the people
expected, what they wanted, and what they (and we) have kept
popular over the centuries.
The negligible plot concerns the titular elixir, promised
by the itinerant Dr. Dulcamara, a charlatan who persuades
lovesick Nemorino that such a potion will cause his beloved
Adina to fall for him.
She, meanwhile, has taken up with handsome Belcore, an army
sergeant, and she’s clearly doing it to spite Nemorino—although
it looks more and more like she’ll have to marry the wrong
The piece is all about bel canto, and the singers—especially
Sandra Moon and Matthew Chellis in the leads—showed their
stuff with easygoing confidence. Vocally, it was a treat,
with the backing of a small but energetic orchestra under
Brent McMunn’s able baton.
Director Michael McConnell seemed content to let the singers
stand and sing, which is dull but redeemed by good voices.
As Belcore, Frank Hernandez had a convincingly menacing presence
and a voice to match, with just enough heart-of-gold to make
his attitude believable.
In the broadly comic role of Dulcamara, Michael Wanko was
surprisingly restrained, seeming almost bored at times despite
being stuck in a campy green suit. Perhaps he was underplaying
to compensate for the more distracting chorus members, like
the fey trio of soldiers who performed their own one-act plays
each time they ambled on stage.
We’re stuck with supertitles rather than a good English version,
and thus are rewarded with such illiterate gems as “But I
am even more proud than him!” Supertitles also were hauled
out for Candide, which is in English, and which speaks
very poorly for the level of diction singers are expected
Some hailed it as the worst of all possible scripts, the book
Lillian Hellman provided for Candide’s original version.
Despite Leonard Bernstein’s sparkling score, the show’s 1956
premiere ran for only 73 performances. Hal Prince significantly
revived it in 1973, substituting an entirely new book by Hugh
Wheeler and adding lyrics by Stephen Sondheim to those already
written by Richard Wilbur and John Latouche. Presented as
a hugely energetic one-act, it pleased everybody but Bernstein.
This was expanded in 1982 into the successful “opera house”
version, which is what the Lake George Opera presented. (There
are even later versions, including the bloated, unwieldy Bernstein-approved
1988 Glasgow production.)
This piece works when it’s not taken as seriously as Bernstein
and Hellman took it, but it’s not a cartoon. Leading characters
die and later reappear, but we’re still not talking Chuck
Jones. A fine sense of satire is needed to maintain the perfect
innocence of Candide and Cunegonde even as the world around
them spits and heaves in religion-driven fury.
Such a sense wasn’t evident here. In fact, there seemed to
be no sense of direction at all. Dean Anthony made a very
good Dr. Pangloss, but effected none of the character transformations
the part invites. Still, his was the proper spirit to infuse
the piece with life, but nobody else took him up on it.
Once again, the leading lovers were in splendid voice, and
Jami Rogers knocked the socks off “Glitter and Be Gay” even
as she struggled to find her own stage business for the song.
Jonathan Boyd sang the role of Candide with panache, but brought
a stolidity to the character quite at odds with the impulsiveness
we want to see.
Then there were the total misfires. Terence Murphy was Maxmilian,
the handsomest man in all Westphalia, who ends up in drag
and the butt of many jokes. But he started out as such an
over-the-top queen that there was no place to take whatever
there is of his character.
Kathryn Cowdrick’s performance of the Old Lady’s “I Am Easily
Assimilated” deserves praise because she managed to hang on
to the number amidst a dreadful dance manqué. Director
Elizabeth Bachman needed to bring in a choreographer. In fact,
she needed to bring in a director. An amateurish flavor informed
every number in which more than three people took the stage.
Even the poor sheep, a pair of singers dressed as if they’d
just escaped on their hands and knees from a production of
Merry Widow, didn’t understand or couldn’t properly
sing the end-of-stanza joke written into Sondheim’s lyrics.
I saw this on a very hot night when the AC refused to cooperate,
and I’ll blame some of the listlessness on that. Perhaps it
affected the instruments. The orchestra had difficulties with
the very tough score, not helped at all by conductor Mark
D. Flint’s way-too-ponderous approach to the piece.
Describing his first impression of the piece, Sondheim said,
“The book didn’t belong with the score, the score didn’t belong
with the direction, and the direction didn’t belong with the
book.” Only an incredibly focused and enthusiastic production
overcomes those still-persistent obstacles, and this wasn’t