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The hero and the sparkplug: (l-r) Honeywell and Pulley in La Fanciullo Del West.

A Fistful of Opera
By Paul Rapp

La Fanciulla Del West
Glimmerglass 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 impassioned Italiano.

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 score.

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.

Staging Tricks, Vocal Treats

L’Elisir d’Amore, Candide
Lake 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 man.

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 to achieve.

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 that production.

—B.A. Nilsson 

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