Verismo? È Vero: Reviewing Puccini's La fanciulla del West at the Castleton Festival
Castleton Festival: http://www.castletonfestival.org
Wikipedia page for La fanciulla del West: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_fanciulla_del_West
Conductor | Lorin Maazel
Stage Director | Giandomenico Vaccari
Assistant Director | Davide Gioli
Set & Costume Design | Davide Gilioli
Associate Costume Designer | Asa Benally
Lighting Designer | Tláloc López-Watermann
Minnie | Ekaterina Metlova
Jack Rance | Paul LaRosa
Dick Johnson (Ramerrez) | Jonathan Burton
Nick | Kirk Dougherty
Ashby | Christopher Besch
Sonora | Andrew Stuckey
Trin | Humberto Rivera
Sid | Ryan Bradford
Harry | Andy McCullough
Joe | Chris Bozeka
Happy | Jesse Malgieri
Larkens | Davone Tines
Billy Jackrabbit | Davone Tines
Wowkle | Megan Gillespie
Jake Wallace | Andrew Manea
Castro | Nathan Milholin
Looking at set and costume design many strengths made the few weaknesses all the more glaring. Davide Gilioli set was large and robust, featuring massive wooden beams and a rustic sense of the frontier. Some small, window-dressing changes transitioned it perfectly from saloon to cabin to mine. The lighting, too, captured the dimness present in those locations, but with subtle differences for each location. Punctuating these overall lighting moods were moments of darkness, extreme spotlights, or, at the end of the opera, a more radiant light as the couple rides off into the sunset. The interplay between the light and set was quite effective, and true to Puccini's original intentions, as well, demonstrating both the inside spaces and vast outdoors of the Wild West.
Gilioli's costumes also portrayed naturalistically the character of the Wild West. The majority of the miners, bandits, etc. all felt appropriately dressed. Where this suffered, however, was in the wardrobe of Minnie. though her later dresses felt at least close to period accurate, if unlikely even for the time period, given her location, her first act outfit was decidedly anachronistic. It resembled something more akin to what an action-heroine in a gun-toting Vin Diesel film might wear than something appropriate. It certainly flattered Ekaterina Metlova and could have been viable, had the entire cast's costumes been similarly updated. Small other issues along similar lines permeated the costuming, but in general it was good, otherwise.
As always, the influence of a director is hard to parse out, leaving a reviewer to attempt to discern how much of the interaction came from the director and how much from the singers themselves. Giandomenico Vaccari successfully managed a relatively large cast of characters, giving them unique actions that brought them to life and separated them from their similar counterparts. He also made good use of the levels and divided cells provided by Gilioli's set, sometimes bringing people together in the central area and sometimes dividing them up above or off to the side, providing visual interest. Where issues seemed to arise was in taming individual habits by singers and in building chemistry between Minnie and Dick Johnson. This, however, is where the lines blur. I will address these issues with the singers themselves, but wonder if Vaccari might have aided here more. The direction of both the final second act scene and the execution scene in the third act was thrillingly taut, however, and the final scene with Minnie and Johnson leaving into the Californian sun while Rance offers up his sheriff's badge to Sonora contemplatively touching.
Fanciulla is an opera, not unlike those being put on by Puccini's contemporaries Richard Strauss or Leoš Janáček, in which the "chorus" is really composed of many small soloistic roles. This makes individual review of them difficult and, as I have done in the past with works by those other composers, with apologies to the singers, I lump them together here. The voices ranged in timbre, quality, and technical security, but generally had a favorable sound to them, especially among those with more exposed lines or more lines in general. While all had fairly substantial voices by typical chorus standards, it was nonetheless clear why they were not singing the lead roles of the piece.
In all this was a great introduction for me to Puccini's La fanciulla del West. It's definitely a work with more nuance in terms of its plot (it's not a straightforward tragedy) than the big three Puccini operas (though they present their own challenges). The music, too, is less showstoppingly straightforward. I felt like the ensemble at Castleton Festival put together a solid show, though, and that it ultimately brought home some of the deeper possible interpretations available in Puccini's work. I was sadly unable to attend Castleton's Otello, but if I am in Virginia next summer I will certainly look forward to their performances then.