Strong cast proves mostly golden in New York City Opera’s “Fanciulla”

Thu Sep 07, 2017 at 3:11 pm
Xx and yay star in Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" at New York City Opera. Photo: Sara Schatz

Kristin Sampson and Jonathan Burton in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” at New York City Opera. Photo: Sarah Shatz

Usually when we think of a great operatic evening, the image that comes to mind is a riveting portrayal by a star singer. Or perhaps, in the case of Wagner or Strauss, a sumptuous reading from the pit. Rarer is the performance carried on the strength of the supporting cast.

It makes sense, in a way, that this could happen with a piece like La Fanciulla del West. Puccini’s proto–Spaghetti Western is as much about its setting as anything else, and much of the color of the scenario is provided by the assorted clientele of the Polka Saloon. Without a strong supporting cast to provide Old West flavor, the gold-rush romance would quickly become a generic love-triangle melodrama.

New York City Opera’s new production of the work, which opened the company’s season on Wednesday, featured a pair of strong lead performances, to be sure: Jonathan Burton was in excellent form as the bandit-in-disguise, Dick Johnson, showing a pure, ringing tenor and strong lyric sense. He overcame a slight awkwardness onstage with moments of focused passion, notably giving a tearful account of his climactic aria “Ch’ella mi creda.”

The most striking performance among the lead trio was Kevin Short’s unusually sympathetic Jack Rance. There was a certain wounded nobility in his portrayal of the domineering sheriff, and the clear depth of his love for Minnie made it impossible to hate him entirely even in his vindictive exultation over Johnson’s capture. His musical performance was a marvel as well, filling out the role with  a rich, booming bass-baritone.

It was a less successful evening for Kristin Sampson as Minnie, the mining-camp darling of the title. Her straightforward portrayal of an innocent romantic hidden beneath a hard-nosed saloon keeper was convincing enough, but her vocal limitations were hard to ignore. Aside from her dark middle range, there was little depth of color, and her soprano’s consistent hard edges turned especially steely at the top.

It was the various players of the ensemble who acted as the glue of this performance, creating distinct characters even with limited dialogue. Kenneth Overton’s grizzled baritone pined beautifully in the role of Jake Wallace, the melancholy balladeer. Christopher Job showed a flinty timbre as Ashby, the no-nonsense Wells Fargo agent. Michael Boley gave a warm portrayal of the barman Nick with his lean tenor. Darren K. Stokes’ spacious spacious bass and earthy tones made a strong impression in his moving appearance as the homesick miner Jim Larkens. Hyona Kim offered burning low notes as Wowkle, and Dane Suarez was completely winning as the earnest but dim-witted Joe.

The biggest standout of all was Alexander Birch Elliott as a conflicted, somewhat hot-headed, and ultimately decent-hearted Sonora. His rich and flexible baritone felt like a luxury in the role, ranging from mellow smoothness to electric energy in moments of urgency.

Wednesday’s season-opener wasn’t exactly a banner night for the NYCO orchestra. Under the baton of James Meena they sounded ragged from the start; the tone of the strings seemed to strain at the top of every crest, and fast-moving scenes became chaotic as the pit struggled to follow the singers. There were a few moments of driving energy, but on the whole it sounded as though the rehearsal budget had been tight.

Fanciulla probably isn’t many people’s choice for favorite or most compelling Puccini opera; indeed some amount of its charm draws from the inescapable goofiness of the translation of an iconic American milieu into Guelfo Civinini’s libretto, as the composer wrestles with a good deal of “Doo-dah-day” and “Hallo, Nick!” (“Howdy” was apparently a bridge too far.) Ivan Stefanutti’s production indulges the silliness just enough in the opening scene, creating a cheery barroom bustle and letting Rance and Sonora’s quarrel beget a general rhubarb. Thereafter, the presentation is often genuinely moving, as its simple but evocative modular sets and handsome period costumes, both by Stefanutti, provide a sound foundation for strong interplay among the cast.

A performance like this one seems a perfect standard for the resurgent NYCO to aim for. We needn’t show up at the Rose Theater expecting to be blinded by superstars, but as long as the company can keep mounting compelling productions of underplayed repertoire with strong contributions from all hands, they’ll more than deserve the attention of New York’s operagoing audiences.

New York City Opera’s production of La Fanciulla del West runs through September 12 at the Rose Theater. nycopera.com

 


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