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La fanciulla del West (Opera North)

Saddle your horses! Puccini's spaghetti western is back on the trail

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Opera North's new production of Puccini's La fanciulla del West ('The Girl of the Golden West') was eagerly anticipated: the company's first production of the opera for nearly 30 years, strongly cast and conducted by Richard Farnes, who currently can do no wrong. In the event a thoroughly worthwhile, but seldom exciting, first night performance only really caught fire in the closing stages.

Robert Hayward (Jack Rance) & Graeme Danby (Ashby) in La fanciulla del West (Opera North)
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
David Belasco's play, as adapted for Puccini, gives this tough mining camp a dangerously soft centre – and Aletta Collins' production only emphasises this. The story tells of Minnie, the owner of the Polka saloon in the 1849 Gold Rush, and the devotion she inspires in the miners. Sheriff Jack Rance is the leading contender for her hand until the bandit Ramerrez comes on the scene under the alias of Dick Johnson. A rapturous love scene, the wounding of Ramerrez and a near-hanging follow before Minnie and the bandit (now reformed) ride into the sunset. It's interesting that, in what appears at first to be the most hard-boiled of his major operas, Puccini embraces an unlikely sentimental ending when so often he confronts tragedy head-on.

It's a difficult balancing act for a director, given the chorus of miners who on the one hand drink and fight and gamble, and on the other enjoy Minnie's Bible readings, dream wistfully of their homes and mothers and have a whipround for a young chap who finds it all too much; but Collins never quite rises to the challenge. Despite the Opera North chorus's proven ability in characterising individuals, few stand out and there is a tendency at times for them to line up in rows or move en masse.

Alwyn Mellor sings Minnie with warmth and (when required) passionate attack, but never convinces as a frontierswoman to the degree that Mary Jane Johnson, the tall Texan soprano, did in ON's 1985 production. As Johnson/Ramerrez, Rafael Rojas looks the part and, after an understated opening, matches Mellor vocally in the intense Act 2 duet. Robert Hayward's brooding Jack Rance is the most believable of the principals, a dark presence both physically and vocally.

In support, Graeme Danby's authoritative Mr. Ashby (of Wells Fargo) and Bonaventura Bottone's sympathetic Nick the bartender are both admirable, with Eddie Wade and Callum Thorpe making excellent company debuts as Sonora and Bill Jackrabbit.

Giles Cadle's inspired front cloth design (with Andrzej Goulding's video framing the action beautifully) is not matched by his functional sets or Gabrielle Dalton's costumes.

As always, Richard Farnes obtains fine playing from the orchestra – a major factor in the dramatic impact of the closing stages – but this is not one of those revelatory performances that have become almost commonplace for him, and the momentum flags from time to time.

- Ron Simpson

La fanciulla del West plays in repertoire at Leeds Grand Theatre until 21 February, then tours during March to Salford, Newcastle and Nottingham. Details here.