Wonderful music makes for a wonderful evening!
Opera Holland Park is London’s country opera house – a charming pastoral setting without the need to negotiate the M40 at rush hour. As with most “country house” operas however, the acoustics leave something to be desired. Holland Park’s big tent makes the orchestra sound richly velvety, but it can be hard to make out some of the singing on occasion. Nature provides compensations though, and an unusually loquacious bird in good voice can provide magnificent off-stage accompaniment during the quieter moments.
La fanciulla del Westis not staged as often as it might be, which is a great shame. While it doesn’t contain any of the great show-stopping areas so prevalent in other Puccini operas, he more than makes up for this shortcoming with mellifluous orchestration throughout. It is musically captivating, with echoes of Strauss, Wagner, Debussy to name a few. Stuart Stratford conducts the orchestra with poise and control, producing a depth of sonority and unified rubato that is very immensely pleasing.
The music is the real reason to enjoy this opera. Stephen Barlow has done his best to make a rather prosaic story interesting but, at heart, it is just a spaghetti western. Originally set in the gold rush, Barlow moves the action to the 1940s period of atomic testing in Nevada. Miners are therefore replaced with soldiers. This sits slightly uncomfortably, although it does enable Minnie (a voluble and brilliant Susannah Glanville) and Dick (Jeff Gwaltney) to leave in an aeroplane. Somehow the proselytising virgin makes more sense in a grubby, make-dominated mining town than in Las Vegas, but ultimately the setting really doesn’t matter that much.
This is predominantly a human story of redemption. Dick voluntarily changes his wicked ways having met Minnie, and Minnie has a lot of growing up to do when she discovers about Dick’s past. In a powerful scene set in a log cabin atop a lonely mountain, Dick literally deflowers Minnie before being shot by the sheriff (who also has designs on the only girl in town). In a scene wrought with tension, Minnie saves Dick from capture, and herself from an unwanted lover, by beating the sheriff in a game of poker.
Dick’s past finally catches up with him. On the verge of being hanged Minnie arrives, somewhat improbably on a real motorbike, to save him and remind the towns-folk (soldiers in this production) of what they all owe her. She convinces them to let Dick go, and they head off together into the sunset.
The libretto does feel a bit light for the subject matter, but the music saves the day. This particular production is also colourfully amusing and provides sufficient material for a very enjoyable night out. My only advice is that you take some warm clothing. The tent is open to the elements, and it can get pretty nippy by 10pm.