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Gorgeous 'Fanciulla del West' at Castleton

The high point of this summer's Castleton Festival, edging out a fine double-bill of La Voix Humaine, was a rather spectacular production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, heard in the final performance on Sunday afternoon. Made for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it was premiered in 1910, Fanciulla would get my vote for the most beautiful, most accomplished score that Puccini composed -- reportedly Puccini's favorite, too, as well as of scholar Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, author of an excellent biography on the composer -- and yet it is rarely performed. In fact, this was the first time the opera has ever been under review here at Ionarts, although I have been publicly calling for Washington National Opera to stage it instead of another Butterfly or Turandot. So much the better that it should come under Lorin Maazel, who has a way with the stretch and pull of Puccini's scores, the shameless emotionalism, the breadth of nobility in the sentiments.

It is an over-sized opera in many ways, "a work that is not small," as Puccini wrote to a friend (Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Puccini: A Biography). In a sense, the story could only work in opera. It revolves around Minnie, the eponymous girl, who has raised herself up out of poverty to become the beloved central figure of a California Gold Rush town, where she serves drinks to the boys, has them all wrapped around her little finger, and teaches them a daily Bible lesson to boot. The local sheriff, Jack Rance, is one of several who plan to marry her, but she falls in love instead with a man who passes through town, Dick Johnson. She does not discover until later that he is actually Ramirez, a wanted bandit, with a heart of gold. Along the way, Puccini doles out one gorgeous set piece after another, weaving the whole into three continuously running acts, with hints of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy -- all of the big composers Puccini obviously heard in the several years between his last opera, Madama Butterfly, and this one.

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Puccini, La Fanciulla del West, M. Zampieri, P. Domingo, La Scala, L. Maazel
Maazel and his musicians and cast gave the musical side exceptional beauty, the surge and gush of the lush orchestration adding vivid narration to the story, supporting and even sometimes engulfing the singers in a thrilling way. Soprano Ekaterina Metlova was a capable Minnie, with plenty of zing in the upper register if sometimes little in the lower passages, pretty and flirtatious, if just a little awkward in her movements. The vocal power she could summon up carried over most of the emotional climaxes of the role, as in the Bible lesson in Act I, on the great penitential psalm (Psalm 51), a lesson that shows itself well learned at the end of the opera. Tenor Jonathan Burton had a confident, ringing tone as Dick Johnson, while the Jack Rance of baritone Paul LaRosa was physically rakish but lacking some snarl in the voice. The supporting cast, made up of Castleton young artists, made a fine ensemble, especially in the many male chorus scenes, none more moving than the nostalgic folk song about home in Act I, which is a truly beautiful moment, and the reconciliation ensemble at the conclusion, a moment imbued with mercy in a way that reminds me of the forgiveness shown to the Count at the end of Le Nozze di Figaro.

Maazel made some waves last month when he lashed out against what he called the "Philistinism of some present day opera staging concepts." His target was opera directors who make changes that he disagrees with, distorting the story, although the negative examples he used were all ridiculous ("casting Butterfly as a hash-slinger in a San Diego diner" or turning "Falstaff into a retired sumo wrestler at a Caracas brothel"), rather than specific. Opera-goers, he concluded, had to protest against theater directors who give "the manipulators, axe-grinders and mafiosi" the upper hand and vote with their pocketbooks. Maazel, with his own summer festival, has done that one better, and Castleton's productions should perhaps be judged by the criteria that he himself set out.

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Anne Midgette, ‘Girl of the Golden West’ gives audiences sound and sight to revel in (Washington Post, July 18)
For the last few years, Maazel entrusted the entire festival to a resident stage director, William Kerley, a position he held until last year. For Fanciulla, Giandomenico Vaccari's direction did not stay slavishly close to the libretto -- Minnie's entrance on horseback in Act III was soft-pedaled, for example (Puccini wanted "eight to ten horses" in this scene at the Met in 1910 and got eight) -- but the staging was clearly set in the 19th century. Vaccari took his inspiration from Western movies, complete with a video backdrop that brought some of the colors of the American West into the stage. The two-level set clearly evoked the Polka Saloon, Minnie's (rather large) mountain hut, and a gold mine for the final scene, and the costumes added to the setting quite convincingly (sets and costumes designed by Davide Gilioli). It was beautiful and it drew you into the story, rather than deconstructing the libretto and its themes in a postmodern way that encouraged ironic distance. Backing up the storytelling in the pit, it made for a solid emotional punch in the gut that exalted the profound, almost spiritual moments in this beautiful score.

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