CASTLETON, Va., July 10, 2013 – Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival staged the formal opening of its 2013 stanza this Saturday past with a great-looking, great sounding production of Giacomo Puccini’s one and only Wild West opera, “The Girl of the Golden West” (“La Fanciulla del West.”)
Perhaps the least familiar of the composer’s major operas, “Fanciulla” (commissioned and premiered by the Met in 1910) is an odd but intriguing amalgam of verismo, late impressionism, and a dollop here and there of cowboy music idioms. These combine to support the story of a plucky, young, and surprisingly Christian girl who serves as barmaid, confessor, and best buddy of a batch of murderous yet loveable miners and cowboys somewhere in California in the late 1800s.
Our beautiful heroine, Minnie, exuberantly portrayed by soprano Ekaterina Metlova, is vigorously pursued by nearly every dodgy dude that hangs in and about her popular saloon. But the nasty local sheriff, Jack Rance (Paul LaRosa) figures he has first dibs and is more than willing to chase Minnie’s suitors off with his fists or his guns.
Unfortunately for them all, Minnie is, perhaps uncharacteristically, saving herself for Mr. Right. In the case of this opera, however, Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Wrong, a misunderstood desperado named Ramerrez who’s disguised as the wandering Dick Johnson (Jonathan Burton). Minnie falls hard for Johnson, much to the chagrin of Rance who’s been pursuing Ramerrez and his gang to gain a reward and administer rough frontier justice.
Things reach their inevitable climax in Act III when Ramerrez is about to be lynched. But (spoiler alert) in an astounding twist we ultimately arrive at a climax that’s the closest Puccini ever got to a happy ending in a big opera. An added plus: Minnie is the only major Puccini heroine to survive to the final curtain. Well, America is the land of promise, right?
Sung in Italian, the opera actually holds up pretty well even in our more cynical 21st century. Admittedly, hearing “western” idioms adapted into quirky Italian (“Hello” for “Howdy” is a frequent refrain), and listening to brutish cowboys long for their “Mama” (very Italian but not very American) understandably evoked a few chuckles Saturday evening.
But aside from these minor amusements, Puccini, who based his opera on a story by American writer David Belasco, seems to have caught the essence of the American West’s gold rush era, at least in terms that his eventual European fans would have understood. It’s his most “verismo” (“sung drama”) score and lacks the usual hit Puccini tune-fest. Yet the music is still elaborate, evocative, and wondrous to hear.
Castleton’s production of “Fanciulla” was its most elaborate yet, as it continues relentless evolution into a major East Coast classical music and opera festival. Davide Gilioli’s massive, wooden beamed, reconfigurable set starts out looking like the fanciest saloon ever, evolves into the fanciest cowgirl’s cottage ever, and finally ends up looking like a cross between a massive barn and a mine entrance in the finale.
But it’s all picturesque, believable, and ultimately necessary to accommodate this opera’s large, almost entirely male cast of rambunctious cowboys and miners, all of whom look quite menacing and authentic in a “Gunsmoke” kind of way.
As Minnie, Ekaterina Metlova is a real find. She boasts a big, expressive voice and the best cowgirl swagger this side of the Asian continental divide. In a sea of predatory males, she’s a refreshing ray of sunshine, just as Puccini intended, and this production is a genuine triumph for her abilities.
As Minnie’s love interest, Johnson/Ramerrez, tenor Jonathan Burton also displayed surprising power and effectiveness in Saturday’s opening performance.
Castleton’s singers, like those at Wolf Trap Opera, are still early in their careers and have not, perhaps, reached the pinnacle of their powers yet, as operatic excellence is still a slow fuse in terms of development and fulfilled potential. So when you see a singer like Mr. Burton approaching the power and effectiveness of more established tenors, as he does in this production, you have to sit up and take notice.
That’s also the case with Paul LaRosa’s Jack Rance and, in a lesser role, Christopher Besch as Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent also in pursuit of Ramerrez.
Unfortunately, from time to time, these excellent young singers, as well as this production’s wonderful chorus, are at times overwhelmed by the Puccini’s lavish score, which requires a large—and noisy—orchestra. These troublesome occurrences don’t happen often, but one takes notice when they do.
That said, Castleton’s youthful orchestra, from the harps to the ubiquitous wind machine, sounded absolutely fabulous under the baton of conductor and Festival founder Lorin Maazel. Better yet, the orchestra and the singing were tightly synchronized, something that’s often amiss, alas, with the Washington National Opera’s opening night productions more often than we’d like.
Between the orchestra’s excellence and the singers’ all out effort, Castleton’s current production of “Fanciulla” is likely one of this summer’s top classical tickets. Plus, this production is a great opportunity to take in one of Puccini’s great, though underappreciated scores.
However, you’ll actually have another opportunity during the upcoming DC area 2013-2014 season when the Virginia Opera will bring its own “Fanciulla” to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. The Norfolk-based company, which continues to surprise and delight, will actually have a tough time topping Castleton’s current production, though.
If you missed Saturday’s opening performance of Castleton’s “Fanciulla,” you have two more chances to see it: tomorrow evening, July 12; and again on July 21.
Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half out of four stars.)
The Castleton Festival is located roughly 20 miles from downtown Warrenton, Virginia off Rt. 211. For tickets, information, and those all-important driving directions, visit The Castleton Festival website.
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