Puccini’s Western Finds Comfy Home At City Opera

Gold Rush romance: Kristin Sampson as Minnie and Jonathan Burton as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla
del West’ at New York City Opera. (Production photos by Sarah Shatz)
By Anne E. Johnson

NEW YORK – Haze was already hanging in the air before the house lights went down at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center on Sept. 6. It was a foggy day in them thar hills as the New York City Opera opened its new season with Puccini’s 1910 opera, La fanciulla del West.

The top of  Kristin Sampson’s range ‘simply sparkled.’

That they opened the season at all is a cause for celebration at NYCO these days. The company shut down in 2013 after years of financial trouble, but rekindled from the sawdust in 2016. The Rose Theater, normally used by Jazz at Lincoln Center, is now home for the larger NYCO productions. Reconfiguration allows for an appropriately wide stage and a full-sized pit, and the sight-lines and acoustics are a joy for the audience.

City Opera seems determined to win back its audience. Former subscribers were offered buy-one/get-one tickets to Fanciulla as a generous enticement. NYCO general director Michael Capasso spoke from the stage on opening night, expressing gratitude for the chance to collaborate with the company’s three production partners – Teatro di GiglioTeatro Lirico di Cagliari, and Opera Carolina.

Capasso touted the new City Opera as “a model for opera of the future, created in an economical and business-minded fashion.” For the sake of the company and the city’s opera fans, I hope that’s true. Whatever new approach is shaping the company, they’ve revealed a nugget of gold with this production.

The California Gold Rush setting was immediately established with stunning photographic projections of the Sierra Madres, making Puccini’s lush score seem like it was made for Hollywood. The projections, on which director Ivan Stefanutti collaborated with Michael Baumgarten, also added texture (often a close-up of tree bark, which was surprisingly effective). Only during Act II did the images become more specifically symbolic. An animated stream of blood ran straight down the backdrop just as the sheriff finally finds Johnson’s hiding place. Hulking silhouettes of armed men appeared when the music roils in warning instead of offering more comforting strains to the lovers.

From left, Christopher Job, Sampson, Alexander Birch Elliott, and Kevin Short.

It is an unabashedly traditional production, despite the projections. The costumes, also by Stefanutti (who completed his Gesamtkunstwerk approach by designing the sets as well), were what Puccini himself might have expected: dungarees, chaps, wide-brimmed hats, and long fur coats. Minnie wore a blouse and denim gouchos rather than the more common tight-bodiced dress; it put the character on practical, realistic ground. And the sets were simple sliding pieces made of wood.

The performance was conducted by James Meena, general director and principal conductor at NYCO’s production partner Carolina Opera. He brought out a satisfyingly Copland-esque lope from the strings and winds to conjure up the Old West. Despite some cracking in the horns and a few instances of iffy ensemble with the chorus, the orchestra gave rich, sweet support to the singers, whether in rousing choral sections or sweeping arias.

Sampson and Burton showed good chemistry.

Kristin Sampson, who also played the title role in last year’s NYCO production of Tosca, turned the “camp girl,” Minnie, into a complicated and realistic woman. (Admittedly, Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini laid the groundwork with their verismo philosophy of character-building.) In her first appearance in Act 1, Sampson bore her total control over the miners’ hearts as if it were her birthright. Yet she could also turn gentle when needed, her voice mellow against velveteen orchestral lines during the Act 1 bible lesson, and defiantly strong as she defended her lover (or her camp’s store of gold). The top of Sampson’s range simply sparkled.

The anti-hero, Dick Johnson (a.k.a. Ramerrez the bandit), was played with a delicate touch by tenor Jonathan Burton. His powerful, reedy voice singing those big Puccini arias raised goose bumps and tears (the woman next to me wept through much of Act II). Burton convincingly allowed his character to develop from affable con artist to a man redeemed and genuinely in love. “Ch’ella mi creda libero,” the aria Johnson sings before climbing the gallows, was heartrending. And his chemistry with Sampson was entirely credible.

Jack Rance (Kevin Short) and Minnie (Sampson) play cards.

As Sheriff Jack Rance, bass Kevin Short had an impressively commanding sound, but his movements and face were so stiff in Act I that his character was hard to take seriously. Short’s acting improved greatly in Acts II and III, when he could rely on larger-scale emotions like righteous anger.

In secondary roles, Alexander Birch Elliot as Sonora stood out for his supple tenor and gentle manner, keeping his cool even when he was apparently lassoed by accident in Act III. And tenor César Delgado as Trin had a delightful stage presence. The only other woman in the cast, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim, played the Native American servant Wowkle. She gave her role beauty and charm despite the racially demeaning libretto.

The men of the NYCO chorus produced a rich, consistent sound and tightly navigated the emotional range from wistful to infuriated. Stefanutti kept the men moving onstage, with occasional help from fight director Robert Westley. The escalating mob scene as they catch Johnson in Act III and egg each other on to hang him went scarily near the edge of madness, but was perfectly controlled.

One mild distraction throughout were the supertitles. “Going” was sometimes spelled “goin’,” and “get” was sometimes “git,” but there wasn’t a clear reason for the inconsistency.

Sampson’s Minnie as gun-totin’ Wonder Woman.

Stefanutti isn’t trying to pretend this opera is anything but a Western fantasy. While Puccini’s work might be a romanticized version of the Old West, some find it to be inspiration for a more modernized approach. Composer John Adams – getting a lot of attention in the 2017-18 season because of his 70th birthday – has taken on the challenge of a Western setting. His new opera, Girls of the Golden West, also about the California Gold Rush, has a libretto described as “sourced from historical writings.” The Peter Sellars production premieres at San Francisco Opera Nov. 21-Dec. 12 with a New York sneak peek on Sept. 21-22 as part of the Guggenheim “Works & Process” series.

Despite its romanticism, perhaps Puccini’s Fanciulla is not entirely old-fashioned or irrelevant. When everyone has turned against Johnson and he stands on the gallows, Minnie swoops in to save him like a gun-totin’ Wonder Woman. She then lowers her gun and wins the battle with persuasion. That’s a good lesson for present-day humanity. We are all subject to, as Minnie puts it, “the mighty truth of love.”

La fanciulla del West runs at New York City Opera through Sept. 12. For information and tickets, click here.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.