Verismo? È Vero: Reviewing Puccini's La fanciulla del West at the Castleton Festival

It has certainly been shocking to see more live opera in a week living in Charlottesville, Virginia than in three holiday seasons and three summers in Toronto, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America. (I should note that overall I saw more classical music performances and other cultural elements in Toronto than I have so far in Charlottesville.)

After Wednesday's La bohème with the Ash Lawn Opera Company, I had the opportunity to drive about an hour and twenty minutes north of Charlottesville, edging in on the Washington, D.C. suburbs, to Castleton, Virginia, where the Castleton Festival is held. The festival is a project of esteemed conductor Lorin Maazel, who actually personally conducted the performance I attended. That performance was of Puccini's La fanciulla del West. Fanciulla is an opera about which I had heard anecdotes: it's one of Plácido Domingo's favorites, it has material Andrew Lloyd Webber may have plagiarized for the theme of "The Music of the Night," it has the great tenor aria "Ch'ella mi creda" that Italian soldiers sang while marching off to World War I, etc. It is not an opera I had ever seen or listened to all the way through, however. Indeed, this is likely due to its lesser popularity today, despite its initial success when premiered.

Castleton Festival:
Wikipedia page for La fanciulla del West:

La fanciulla del West | Giacomo Puccini
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.

Kirk Dougherty as Nick had a fine voice that suited the role well. What really set him apart, however, was his ability to embody the verismo character of the bartender and the caring go-between. This was apparent from the moment he was seen on stage, lighting candles and preparing glasses as the overture played. The sense was only amplified as the opera went along. Andrew Stuckey's Sonora similarly stood out pleasantly. Again, the voice was definitely adequate for the role, although with just a tinge of roughness to it that perhaps relegates him from more mellifluous baritone roles. Once again, however, Stuckey found a way to play the bravo, the puppy-eyed lover, and the sympathetic voice of reason all in one character successfully, and it was pleasant to see. Indeed, Stuckey's performance acted as icing on the cake of the main character's plot, helping to set it off. Christopher Besch, who I have had the pleasure of seeing during my time in school in concert at Lawrence University, from which he graduated, sounded richly pompous as Ashby. His exclamations were ringing in the upper bass register while he could still gravel out pleasant low notes. This helped dramatize his overall character choice - driven to find Dick Johnson, but going about it in a cavalier sort of way.

Paul LaRosa's Jack Rance, unfortunately, had many pieces of the puzzle that is the role, but did not seem to be able to fit them together. LaRosa's sheer physique and presence, aided by Gilioli's costuming, gave him an almost aristocratic flair that fit well with the character's domineering attitude and almost dangerous self-assurance. His voice, too, was a vibrant baritone with just a touch of ice to it that communicated the way Rance's intentions - to provide love for a woman and bring justice to a man - are honorable but somehow lack the humanity necessary to comprehend their full implications. The problems came perhaps from his casting and some personal oddities in his performance style (which may have been a means of coping with the casting). As far as casting goes, it felt like LaRosa was frequently struggling to contend with Puccini's sizable orchestra. This was apparent even in the opening scene but became increasingly obvious as the production continued with its peak decibel moments in the second and third acts. At first it seemed his lower ranges were where he struggled, which is understandable if less usual for a baritone than other voice types. Where it truly became worrisome, however, was when his middle and even upper range simply could not contend with the orchestra. More on balance later. Otherwise, LaRosa's stance on stage frequently became braced and stiff. Certainly adopting a strong position is a baritone villain standard tactic and was fitting for the role. LaRosa, however, simply employed it far too often, rooting his feet in an almost athletic stance and leaning back to belt out his notes. These two elements are likely interrelated and tied to a third: insecurity in the top range. I thought this insecurity was undue, in fact, because once LaRosa let his top notes sail they sounded fine and secure - he simply worried too much about them and actually hindered himself with his static positioning. In all, I would love to see LaRosa sing a role where he does not have to contend with such a large orchestra and possibly with direction that got him moving a bit more as he sang.
Dick Johnson is a big tenor role, although one that takes a bit to get started. Jonathan Burton sang through the role ably. His sizable voice matched the orchestra and he never seemed to be straining or struggling throughout. The tone was warm and soft, providing a sense of the tenderness that he shows Minnie despite his rough lifestyle. His high notes were ringing and balanced, accessed in what might be described as a "typical" spinto-dramatic fashion - with the sound definitely ringing backwards but still vibrant and resonant. At first I was very opposed to Burton's interpretation of the character. I felt like he was too smiley, too upbeat, and too laissez-faire about the whole matter to either be a convincing bandit or a convincingly smitten lover. He looked a bit like a kid in a candy store. As the opera progressed, however, I came to appreciate his interpretation more. He became more vibrantly romantic, though still playful at times, and more sorrowful as he realized the conflict between his love and lifestyle, especially in the third act. His "Ch'ella mi creda," for instance, was beautifully and evocatively sung, if paced a bit strangely. This served as a powerful dichotomy, suggesting that though he fell for Minnie when he met her previously, he came into the whole situation (the opera) carefree as a successful bandit sneaking into enemy territory and finding a woman he found attractive, and as it went on he realized he truly loved her and how close he came to losing everything. Still, whether for these reasons or others, it felt like the chemistry was not there between Burton and Metlova. They sang with passion and acted just as we would expect lovers to act, but it was hard for me to be convinced that I was actually watching an enveloping romance. Still, reviewing this paragraph it feels necessary to add that Burton really was quite a solid Dick Johnson with a smooth performance throughout and both vocal and acting pluses to commend him.
It would be fair to point out that Ekaterina Metlova, as Minnie, shares some of the blame for a lack of chemistry between the lovers. I did feel that it fell mostly on Burton's side, especially given Metlova's great success in playing both an innocent and also strong lover and  simply a young woman in love. Still, chemistry is a two way street. It would also be fair to criticize Metlova for some overacting in the "old-school" opera fashion. Singing to the proscenium with arms raised, throwing her head around coming off of high notes, and going a bit too far with some of her coy moments. As mentioned, both the chemistry issue from Burton and these issues may be attributable to or could have received better help from Vaccari as director, but bear mentioning.

Regardless, Ekaterina Metlova's performance as Minnie was really quite outstanding; there was no question she, like Minnie in the mining town, was the star of the show. Other than the foibles mentioned, her ability to characterize Minnie was nuanced and moving. In some ways the character herself is problematical - moving in the course of several days through stages many women (men have their own stages, of course) take years to work out. Metlova made this believable, however. In the first act we saw a young woman who reveled in her small slice of life as the commanding star of her region, delighting in the adoration of men while kindly pushing back against them even as she provided them education and humanization.  In more important matters: her refusal of Rance was effective, but mixed with uncertainty and as her love for Dick Johnson blossoms, the overwhelmed trepidation of a young woman who has never been in love and doesn't know what to expect was palpable. As she moved into the second and third acts, however, Metlova slowly hammered Minnie into steel as she navigated her feelings, and disappointments in Dick Johnson and outwitted Rance. She always managed to maintain the sense of sweetness and goodness so central to Minnie, however. This was especially apparent at the end of the third act. If Metlova's acting was good, her singing was superb. Perhaps most importantly the voice was large and ringing, carrying easily over the orchestra at all but the loudest moments and contending with it ably even then. When she did not let loose, however, Metlova's voice had a mellow warmth that was quite appealing. The natural character, with a vibrant vibrato of perfect width for a dramatic role - larger but still quick enough to be thrilling, was molten iron laced with electricity. At her most powerful, she blew us away, a capstone to Minnie's transformation.

It was of course a great honor and wonder to see esteemed conductor and festival founder Lorin Maazel  at the helm. The pit in the venue, a large tent, was somewhat sunken and I could not see his conducting, however. Still, he definitely knew how to bring the key melodies out of the orchestra and to elicit vibrant playing. At times balance seemed an issue, however, particularly at the beginning of the show. Almost paradoxically I wondered whether sound reinforcement was being used or whether the mics in front of the stage were strictly for recording purposes. Some of the singers sounded like they were using a production that should not have carried as well as it did without amplification. I think, however, there was not reinforcement and that the beginning of the show provided some difficulties with balance, especially with the more minor characters. As it went along the principals, with the exception of LaRosa, were fine, except at the loudest moments - always a challenge for any conductor. This is also why I feel comfortable positing LaRosa might not have been the best selection, since the other principals balanced better. Perhaps Maazel could have backed off a little more, but in general it worked just fine.

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.


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