In some ways, you could think of Puccini’s opera La Fanciulla del West as the first spaghetti western. This aspect is completely adhered to in the new and extremely successful production of The Girl of the Golden West at the ENO, by Richard Jones. Some of the signature visuals, realized by Set Designer Miriam Buether – a certain amount of stylization, the use of neon lighting here and there to point things – are arresting in themselves, but with the costumes of Nicky Gillibrand, and the show is completely evocative of the Gold Rush era in California and not of some arbitrary updating.
Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Fanciullais a bit of a Cinderella among the Puccini operas, because it is Puccini at his most experimental and modernistic. There are few “big tune” moments and the score is constructed mainly from thematic cells and leitmotifs, rather than Big Moments. When those moments do come, however – Jake Wallace’s ballad, various moments of narration by the main characters, Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III – they have huge impact and are completely memorable. The sonorities and orchestrations are astonishing at times, and the mood is consistent and emotionally suggestive throughout.
Jones is not afraid of the great melodramatic moments of this tale; indeed, he often almost sends them up, causing the audience to laugh, but also reminding one of the early cinematic acting styles, contemporary with when the opera was first performed. Despite this, somehow the story remains credible and the rescue of her lover by Minnie at the end is completely convincing. The entire cast sings and acts with commitment and the sense of the community, in which Minnie is a kind of sister of mercy, is strongly conveyed. Craig Colclough makes a slightly one-dimensional Jack Rance – Sherriff and bully – and Peter Auty is a sympathetic Dick Johnson (really the Bandit Ramerrez). Both have fine voices for their parts while Graham Clark’s Nick, Nicholas Masters’ Ashby, Leigh Melrose’s Sonora, Clare Presland’s Wowkle and George Humphreys’ Jake Wallace, the Minstrel, must be praised as standouts among a well-schooled cast.
But the evening belongs most especially to the two principal women: Susan Bullock’s tireless, appealing, vivid Minnie; and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who draws a brilliant performance from all the musical forces and makes something coherent and luscious of the score. Susan Bullock is a Minnie in the style of Birgit Nilsson – a clarion voice, at times warm, at times laser like, soft with emotion at some moments, over-riding the full sound of the orchestra at others. Her acting is also fine – a cross between Lillian Gish and Marie Dressler – and above all her voice is a glorious, Puccinian instrument. If you are new to this opera, this production, cast and conductor will convince you that you need to get to know it better; and if you already know it, it will please you as an excellent and extremely satisfying presentation of a somewhat under-rated work of art.