San Francisco Opera's current production of Puccini's La Fanciulla Del West
("The Girl of the Golden West") is a surprising success. Don't let SFO's sophomoric and moronic marketing of this as "The Original Spaghetti Western" put you off- there is some operatic gold being mined in this production, courtesy of a strong cast, well-designed sets by Maurizio Balo (this is a co-production with Teatro Massimo Palermo and Opera Royal de Wallonie) and superb conducting of the SFO orchestra under music director Nicola Luisotti. It also doesn't hurt that although Fanciulla
is the least-performed of any of the composers major works, it just may be his richest score. It doesn't have any show-stopping arias like those found in Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly
but musically, this is Puccini at his best and Luisotti led the orchestra through a flawless performance of the score.
Onstage things were pretty fine as well. Act 1 opens with a tavern called the Polka being assembled onstage while various miners mill about singing this and that and it's all fine and good though on this particular night I thought the chorus was weak and a bit of a hash. Deborah Voigt, singing the role for the first time, enters by firing a pistol three times and with her white-blonde wig and red leather get-up, immediately becomes the beating heart of the show. I'll admit to being a Voigt partisan and while I may not want to watch her as Salome at this point in her career, I'd happily listen to her anytime. The constant chatter about the quality of her voice over the last few years is just annoying to me. Voigt can still sing- and she sings very well. She's also one of the better actresses appearing on opera stages. Minnie suits her- Voigt has a tremendous personal warmth when you meet her that is genuine and this role calls for that same warmth to make it believable. The score doesn't give Minnie any big arias even though she's the central character, odd for Puccini, but in place of that are three acts of melodic beauty which Voigt executes with clarity and precision.
Salvatore Licitra, making his first appearance with SFO (finally!) has also taken a beating since bursting into the opera world's consciousness when he filled in for Pavarotti at the Met a few years back and hit it out of the park. This was my first time hearing him and he sounds like an Italian singer should- which is to say he reminded me of a younger Pavarotti, something one doesn't encounter much these days. He has a rich, full voice and his performance was vocally magnificent as bad boy Dick Johnson.
Oddly however, he and Voigt have zero chemistry together onstage and this becomes a distraction by the end, where they ride off into the sunset together while holding hands at the greatest distance possible. I can't believe this is called for by stage director Lorenzo Mariani, so if anyone has any backstage dirt on this, feel free to leave it in the comments.
Roberto Frontali fared less well as Sheriff Jack Vance but not because he couldn't sing well, which he can- he just doesn't look comfortable with the role. This may or may not be his fault as the Sheriff's role isn't quite rendered correctly in the libretto. He's not a bad guy, but he is a jerk, and as the third side of a love-triangle it just doesn't work.
The supporting roles were well-sung, with two singers making notable impressions: first, Timothy Mix's Sonora was a tremendous success. This is his first time at SFO and he'll be back again in the fall in Cyrano, which I'm sitting on the fence about seeing. I hope Gockley has the good sense to bring him back regularly.
Second, although she only sings for about a minute and a half, current Adler fellow Maya Lahyani's voice filled the house and is quite impressive for such a young singer at this point in her career. As I mentioned previously, I think she has the goods to be the next Netrebko. I know, that's complete hyperbole, but when she's famous ala Netrebko maybe she'll remember I was an early advocate for her and she'll get me really good seats for her inevitable Met debut and an interview for this blog. I really, really want to see her as Carmen.
A last note on the horse: I was disappointed the horse was led by two handlers when it makes its entrance. It kills the effect and makes it a bit of silly staging. And unfortunately, the horse didn't live up to its name
See this one and listen closely- it's well worth it.
Production photos by Cory Weaver, lifted from SFO's website.