IN: Reviews

Central City Puccini

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Two thousand miles west of Boston and one-and-a-half miles high, the thriving Central City Opera, enjoys its status as America’s fifth oldest opera company. The 2024 CCO Summer Festival, which features three huge operas that all premiered in New York, has just begun with a sold-out Pirates of Penzance (1879) [rave reviews HERE and HERE] and last night’s fantastic La fanciulla del West (1910). Director Fenlon Lamb relocated the story from Puccini’s California to Colorado in a fascinating thoroughly researched and richly orchestrated production, with the breathless pacing of a modern thriller.

Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote a thoughtful appreciation and history of the CCO and its 1878 Opera House in The Denver Post HERE; this critic was thrilled to discover that San Francisco artist John C. Massman’s elegant trompe l’oeil murals have been lovingly restored and that every (comfortable! air-conditioned!) seat has an unobstructed view. The company owns many historic properties throughout Central City, and the beautifully restored 1872 Teller House is an ideal place to have dinner before a show. CCO maintains a full roster of educational offerings for the local community and presents additional programming during the off-season. Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956) and Henry Mollicone’s The Face on the Barroom Floor (1978) were both written for and premiered by the CCO. Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (1947 premiere of the revised original) will round out this year’s festival, which continues until August 4.

In her excellent director’s note for La fanciulla Lamb wrote: “You’ve heard of the ‘Miner, Forty-niner’ […] but how about the ‘Miner FIFTY-niners’ of Colorado?” The Gregory Lode, discovered in central Colorado by John H. Gregory in 1859, led to gold prospecting in Blackhawk, Central City, and Idaho Springs. “Given the rich mining history of the Central City area, creating a new production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West and moving it from the Sierras to the Rockies felt like a natural progression that would engage the town’s storied past.” Lamb’s conception and staging balances “the harshness of the landscape and its inhabitants” with tenderness. “In the end, it’s being able to connect and understand the other person, and their needs. I think it’s an opportunity to see the strength juxtaposed with fragility of the community, and then forgiveness is pretty much the answer.”

ORIGINS

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) did years of research for this composition, listening to recordings of Native American music, reading Bret Harte novels, collecting photos of California’s forests, and playing through American sheet music of the 1850s. In 1907, the composer visited New York to supervise the Met’s American premiere of Madama Butterfly and saw two David Belasco plays, both set in California: The Rose of the Rancho and The Girl of the Golden West. The Girl made a huge impression on him due to its realistic snowstorm scene (requiring 32 trained stagehands) and its star Blanche Bates, the same actress who had captivated him as the London Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San. Pre-Hollywood, some of the earliest silent Western films used settings in Northeastern forests and featured white women, Native Americans, and Mexicans in leading roles. By 1911, over 5,000 had been produced, and many were shown in New York during Puccini’s visit. (See Robert Anderson’s “The Role of the Western Film Genre” (Journal of the University Film Association, Spring 1979) and and Larry Langman’s Guide to Silent Westerns (Greenwood, 1992).

For a librettist, Puccini chose Bologna-based Carlo “Charlie” Zangarini (1874-1943), who was assisted by his mother (a Colorado-born teacher of English) and Tuscan poet Guelfo Civinini. Zangarini and Puccini developed some of the dialogue while hunting around the windy shores of Lake Massaciuccoli, so the sounds of gunshots and wind are important components of his score.

La fanciulla del West (sung in Italian with English surtitles projected on both sides of the stage) features a love triangle similar to that of Tosca: the protagonist Minnie, the gun-toting owner of the Polka Saloon, is the subject of an amorous rivalry between Sheriff Jack Rance and Dick Johnson, who turns out to have inherited a band of thieves from his father, the Mexican bandit Ramerrez. When I describe the plot to my film-buff friends, they say, “Oh! A spaghetti Western!” and when I describe it to my nieces, they exclaim, “That’s the plot of A Princess Bride!” Definitely a crowd pleaser…

Uninterested in Rance, Minnie falls for Johnson, whom she had met earlier in Monterey, California. By Act Two, she has discovered her lover’s alias, but when he is shot by one of his pursuers, she hides him in her cabin. Sheriff Rance and his posse discover “Ramerrez,” so Minnie offers to play three hands of poker for their freedom. (Guys and Dolls! exclaim my nieces). Carefully hiding an ace up her… (use your imagination), she wins the first and third hands and Rance promises to honor the deal. The plot escalates in Puccini’s Act Three, a combination of elements culled from Belasco’s original Acts 3-4. As the men’s chorus chases Johnson through the woods with the intent to lynch him, Minnie arrives to plead with them to spare his life. A rousing chorus of forgiveness builds, and the lovers disappear into the sunset.

STAGING & DESIGN

Finale to Act Three: Matthew Cossack (Sonora), Jonathan Burton (Dick), Kara Shay Thomson (Minnie) & Ensemble (Amanda Tipton photo)

Lamb, who recently directed two casts for Handel’s Alcina at Boston University’s Opera Institute (April 2023, review HERE), wisely used the 550-seat house as an extension of her mainstage, allowing Puccini’s intimate romantic melodies, brash choruses, and orchestrated folk elements to seamlessly envelop the audience. Lighting designer Abigail Hoke-Brady’s most effective use of video projection took place during the climactic poker between Millie and Sheriff, as projections of each card appeared above the characters heads, raising the stakes for the audience as Puccini’s pizzicato strings suspended time.

Assistant Director Barbara Poll, in her second year at CCO, introduced the pre-concert presentation held in the Williams’s Stables, right across the street from the Opera House. Poll’s thought-provoking contextual remarks about the composer and the choice of setting led smoothly into Lamb’s description of her unique collaborative experience with Papermoon Opera Productions: “While the opera is firmly planted in the verismo style and the source material (David Belasco’s play) is steeped in the naturalism of the early 20th century, the use of contrasting and unexpected textures of varying paper materials lends to the impermanent feel of the ramshackle, Wild West settlement and speaks to the more poetic nature of the romantic storyline. With trees made of paper tubing [the stark winter landscape for Act Three], saloon walls in slats of cardboard [decorated to form multiple levels and rooms in Act One that transformed into Minnie’s snowbound cabin in Act Two], and rocks forged from Tyvek [at the front corners of the proscenium], the Papermoon team found creative solutions to the rigors of realism.” Lamb also changed one word in Puccini’s original treatment: “Instead of ‘Addio California’ [Goodbye, California] Minnie says ‘Andiamo a California’ [Let’s go to California]” before riding into the sunset. The costumes were originally designed by Susan Allred for the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera.

RESOURCES

For more background, the three most thorough discussions of the opera’s origins may be found HERE, in the opening chapters of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (Opera Classics Library Series, 2005), edited by Burton D. Fisher, in Christy Thomas Adams’ recent article in JAMS (“Staging the Cinematic: Puccini, Fanciulla, and Early Silent Film,” 76/1, 2023, 1-55), and here in Annie Janiero Randall’s Puccini and the Girl (UChicago, 2005) which translates Puccini’s letters to Zangarini (they are preserved in the Marvin Gray Collection by his daughter Rosalind Gray Davis). The 1912 edition of Puccini’s full score is available online HERE, 140 minutes of music divided into three acts.

The University of Denver library maintains the CCO archive, including footage of past productions and playbills from early 20th-century visiting performers like Lilian Gish and Mae West, to the more recent visits of Samuel Ramey. Members of the CCO staff attend quarterly meetings with staff from other opera houses in the mountains to encourage historic preservation of the region’s rich trove of operatic history.

PERFORMANCES

Conductor Andrew Bisantz is well-known to Boston collegiate audiences through his recent successes at the Boston Lyric Opera with Puccini [BMInt reviews HERE and HERE] and Britten [BMInt review HERE] and at Boston Conservatory, recently conducting Chabrier’s L’Étoile [BMInt review HERE]. With a sure hand and sensitive doses of rubato, Bisantz led an excellent crew of players who excelled in depicting the deep western forests of Puccini’s imagination (the Prologue to Act One), the sweeping melodies which Andrew Lloyd Weber later mined for his West End successes, and the quick contrasts of waltzes, polkas, and ragtime rhythms. Wind machines sounded frequently, and voices balanced well with the 45 instruments (sequestered deep under the stage).

Chorus Director and Associate Conductor Brandon Eldredge masterfully prepared the largely AGMA male chorus for its many set pieces. They sang with fervor and masculine grace, bringing down the house at the beginning and end of this masterful work. Voices ringing with power and verve, they excelled in the score’s comedic dance scenes, threw themselves into two violent brawls, and cowered piously as Minnie read a psalm to them. Ensemble members were drawn from leading actors and from the Bonfils-Stanton Artists Training Program (30 accepted singers from a field of 600 this year).

Grant Youngblood’s dark, brooding interpretation of Sheriff Jack Rance dominated the first act. Tortured by his attraction to Millie, Youngblood’s many solo moments were at once terrifying and heartbreaking. A highlight of Act One on opening night was Nicholas Lin stepping up to play the Polka Saloon bartender Nick ― this role is often merely a foil for the many baritones vying for attention in the saloon, but Lin’s easy, bright tenor voice brought out the poignant sincerity of the character, leading the way for the men’s ensemble to be transformed by clemency and compassion. His is a voice to listen for in the future.

Matthew Cossack’s sinewy, empathetic Sonora contrasted well with Christopher Job’s brash portrayal of the Wells Fargo agent Ashby. Job deserves a shot at Sheriff Rance in the future, as his suave demeanor and robust, well-modulated tone complimented Puccini’s lush, urgent orchestrations.

Ilhee Lee (Trin), Eric Viñas (Sid), Andrew Payne (Bello), Patrick Stark (Harry), James Anthony Mancuso (a humorously morose Joe), Jonathan Lawlor (Happy), Nathan Holmes (Larkens), David Drettwan (Jake Wallace), Oliver Poveda Zavala (José Castro), and Louis Lee (a charming, vulnerable Pony Express Rider) made excellent contributions.

The leading lady that holds all this Puccini together is saloon owner Minnie, played with captivating magnetism by Kara Shay Thomson. She’s the real pioneer in the town, a confident businesswoman who quiets her romantic inclinations to exert a maternal calm over her clientele. Through Minnie’s rebuff of Sheriff Rance (“Laggiù nel Soledad”) and her heartfelt reading of a psalm to the miners, we discover one of Puccini’s most complex and moving characters, supported by boldly modernist whole tone scales and chromaticism. Minnie’s tenacious determination came through in Thomson’s steely fervor, and she ably soared over the orchestra during her tumultuous romance with Dick Johnson, the rootless tenor who turns out to be a bandit. Opening night provided the audience with a thrilling, committed performance from a woman, in turns playful and pensive, who began her professional career as a youthful cover and ensemble member of this very company 25 years ago. Her very presence made a landscape menaced by violence and desperation seem a better, more joyful place; in the intimate worlds of her saloon and rough-hewn cabin, she truly sparkled.

Act Two brings special challenges for a modern opera company, due to the difficult characters of Minnie’s Native American servant, Wowkle and her partner, Billy Jackrabbit. They are often treated as crude stereotypes, but contrasting with many productions, Lamb says, “You can give these characters real depth. We’ve decided that Billy Jackrabbit is a white trader who goes into different native camps and understands some of the language and might marry a native woman.” Belasco and Puccini originally referred to Wowkle as a “squaw,” an outdated reference to an Indian woman who is disposable. Most of the place names that use this word date from the Gold Rush (1849-1855), during which the word was brought in by visitors from the East. It was derived originally from an Algonquin word meaning “woman,” but now acts as a reminder of the most destructive period of Native American history. CCO acknowledges that they gather and operate on the traditional lands of the Cheyenne, Ute and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ past, present and future. Forty-eight contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.

Mezzo-soprano Natacha Cóndor, as a lush-voiced, thoughtful Wowkle, stole the first scene in Act Two through her intimate lullaby and a hilarious, well-staged duet with her partner Billy Jackrabbit. Ably sung by Steele Fitzwater, Billy awkwardly suggests marriage; to each proposal, Wowkle replies, “I don’t know about that.” Listen HERE to Cóndor singing “Maria la O” from Ernesto Lecuona’s zarzuela of the same name and HERE to a less formal recital performance singing a favorite from Carmen.

Act One: Nicholas Lin (Nick the Bartender), Grant Youngblood (Sheriff Rance), Christopher Job (Ashby) & Ensemble (Amanda Tipton photo)

Jonathan Burton is a powerful dramatic tenor familiar to Boston Lyric Opera audiences for his Cavaradossi (Tosca, 2017, review HERE) and Pollione (Norma, streamed in March 2020 during COVID, review HERE). He was interviewed HERE by this publication in 2020, and he has deepened his portrayal of Dick Johnson (Ramerrez) since singing the same role with New York City Opera in 2017, praised then by The New York Times for “brawny, youthful elements to his singing, which at its best had ping and ardor” [review HERE].

Burton’s tenor voice has evolved into a rich, resonant instrument combining elements of Domingo’s strong baritone and Caruso’s musicality. His contributions during Puccini’s complex saloon scene, in which the waltz theme “Oh, se sapeste” underlays his introduction to Sheriff Rance and the miners, recalled a similarly complex scene from Tosca’s second act, in which Cavaradossi is tortured offstage while Scarpia makes dastardly plans onstage. Burton’s 2016 Opera Colorado performance of that scene with soprano Melissa Citro in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver may be heard here. Puccini also includes some syncopated dance music of the period when this character is present: listen to Dick’s “Che c’è per farmi I rici?”, supported by a jaunty cakewalk motif in a 1978 performance by Plácido Domingo, Carol Neblett, and Sherrill Milnes from Covent Garden HERE.

The highlight of the last act came in Burton’s interpretation of Puccini’s yearning melody “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,” expressing his desire to be remembered as a man who escaped death, leaving those behind with hope. Listen to Enrico Caruso (Puccini’s very first Dick Johnson) singing the aria HERE to appreciate why Puccini called this his finest score. CCO presents La fanciulla in repertory for the next month, and it’s worth the trip to the Rockies!

Laura Prichard is the Dramaturg for Aaron Zigman’s new oratorio Émigré, which premiered to sold-out houses in Shanghai (2023) and at the New York Philharmonic (2024). A finalist for the 2015 Pauline Alderman Prize for Outstanding Writing on Women & Music and the 2019 Kurt Weill Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in Music Theater since 1900, she teaches at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass), as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, and works as a theater pianist (over 50 productions with the Winchester Cooperative Theater and ART). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003 under Vance George, and has sung with major symphony and professional choruses on both coasts for 30 years.

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