From a deep vein in old California, an opera gleams

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Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tenor Marcello Giordani portrays the bandit Dick Johnson and soprano Deborah Voigt is Minnie in "La Fanciulla del West."

Review: Puccini’s "La Fanciulla del West"
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Puccini’s take on the Gold Rush days of the American frontier, “La Fanciulla del West,” hangs around the fringes of the composer’s canon – and indeed the general repertoire – as something of an oddity, infrequently staged and, in its unfamiliarity, modestly prized. The title’s usual rendering in English as “The Girl of the Golden West,” faintly evocative of musical comedy, surely hasn’t helped the opera’s image.

But “Fanciulla” lies as far from comedy as “Madama Butterfly,” Puccini’s other glimpse into the American psyche and culture. As the Lyric Opera’s engaging revival attests, the same dramatic insight and lyric genius that already had produced “Butterfly,” “Tosca” and “La Boheme” struck true coin again when Puccini’s created “Fanciulla” in 1910 on a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. The composer wanted to write a specifically American opera. He delivered both a credible portrait of the wild and lonely West and a masterpiece of music-drama, as touching as it is imaginative.

Like the Lyric Opera, the Met also chose the centenary of “Fanciulla” to bring it once more before the public, even including the opera in its Met Live in HD series of cinema transmissions earlier this season. And like the Met, the Lyric settled on the same two singers for the lead roles: soprano Deborah Voigt as Minnie, the pistol-packing young woman who keeps a mining camp saloon called the Polka, and tenor Marcello Giordani as Dick Johnson, a notorious robber who sets his sights on the Polka’s gold stash until he enters the world of the beautiful and compassionate Minnie.

Having seen the Met production in New York, I can report one key gain in the Lyric staging: the set for Act I, which takes place in the saloon. Where the Met presented a vast space that challenged any sense of intimacy among the Polka’s habitués, the Lyric achieves precisely that with a saloon whose snug proportions we first grasp from the outside – only to see the walls open to reveal a cozily cluttered interior worthy of a mining camp watering hole.

“Fanciulla” is not a simple story of bad man meets good girl and reforms. The towering mountain range that looms behind the Polka in this production implies Puccini’s larger story of rugged souls thrown together in collective loneliness, prospectors far from home and family, mutually dependent, living at the outer limits of law and creature comfort. In all three acts, Puccini took great pains to establish these conditions and circumstances – moving to a tentative love scene in Minnie’s mountain cabin as a blizzard rises, then to a bleak impromptu gallows and cold darkness as fate closes in on the outlaw Dick Johnson. In the local sheriff Jack Rance, who lusts after Minnie and draws a bead on Johnson as both wanted man and rival, Puccini gives raw adversity a human form.

Puccini’s vocal writing, mostly through-composed in the manner of Wagner, is spectacular not only in its free-wheeling and soaring lines but also in its concise expression. Voigt and Giordani bring to this production the same vocal luster and passionate yet resistant interaction that lit up the Met stage. These are real, feeling characters whose hard lives resonate in the speech of their music. The saloon affords a golden wealth of such grappling souls, among them the jealous, vengeful sheriff, and in baritone Marco Vratogna’s chilling rage one hears a distinct echo of Tosca’s demonic pursuer Scarpia.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts with a sure sense of dramatic arch, and stage director Vincent Liotta manages to evoke through his large cast a spirit of shared venture and common risk against that rough vastness.

Through Feb. 21. www.lyricopera.org Call (312) 827-5600.