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La fanciulla del West (Holland Park)

Puccini's all too rarely seen Wild West opera fires the opening shots in OHP's new season

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Serendipity, synchronicity – call it what you will, but when I rolled home from seeing Puccini's horse-opera La fanciulla del West at Opera Holland Park, Sergio Leone's emblematic spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars was playing on a movie channel. As it drew to a blood-soaked conclusion Clint Eastwood taunted the bad guy to "Aim for the heart, Ramón. The heart".

Susannah Glanville (Minnie) and Simon Thorpe (Jack Rance) in La fanciulla del West (OHP)
© Fritz Curzon

Scroll back a century and aiming for the heart was Puccini's stock-in-trade. The composer of La bohème and Tosca knew how to tease the tear-ducts better than any other composer in history; and even if La fanciulla sits alongside La rondine on a lower rung of public espousal, its devotees consider it the best thing he ever wrote.

In the ardent, sweeping account by Stuart Stratford and a 50-strong City of London Sinfonia you could see their point. With no orchestra pit or acoustically-friendly architecture to support them these heroic musicians achieved a miracle of balance, and when on rare occasions they swamped the voices that was more down to singer fallibility than ill-judged playing or conducting.

Stephen Barlow's production is a puzzle though. There's really not much you can do with an opera set in the wild west except set it in the wild west; gun law and outlaws in the days of the California Gold Rush were all part of a unique, primitive proto-society, which is one reason why cinema embraced the cowboy myth so readily. So in relocating David Belasco's tale of good guys and bad guys The Girl of the Golden West to the atomic testing grounds of 1950s Nevada, Barlow has shifted it from a time of barbarism into one of the most controlled environments in American history. Little about the setting makes sense, even though the designs by Yannis Thavoris are nicely imaginative. Barlow's concept grinds against the drama and says nothing discernible about America so it's probably best to ignore it.

"Susannah Glanville is a home-grown jewel"

Pistol-packin' Minnie owns both the Polka Saloon and the hearts of its customers. No one in this male-dominated world can resist her charms, certainly not the gruff sheriff, Jack Rance. He's utterly smitten and is not best pleased to find that a mysterious new arrival, Dick Johnson, is the man who captures her heart.

A straightforward love triangle, then? Not entirely. La fanciulla del West is far from predictable, which may account for its rarity along with the dearth of extractable arias or instantly-hummable tunes in Puccini's lush, magnificent score (although one recurring four-bar motif is guaranteed to stick in any musical theatregoer's mind).

The lengthy roll-call of male singers makes La fanciulla a tough show to cast, but Nicholas Garrett (Sonora), Neal Cooper (Nick) and Graeme Broadbent (Ashby) led a first-rate supporting ensemble. Simon Thorpe was a suitably broody sheriff and the American Jeff Gwaltney a complex if vocally subdued Dick Johnson. On the two-strong distaff side Laura Woods sparkled as Wowkle; but really it was Susannah Glanville's show. The Yorkshire-born soprano was terrific as Minnie: her powerful voice has bloom and heft as well as radiance and she lifted the production at her every appearance. Long a fixture at Opera North, Glanville is a home-grown jewel and we London-centrics need to see more of her. Like Puccini, she aimed for the heart.