By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Giacomo Puccini is often regarded as the world's most beloved and most performed operatic composer, and a scene during the first act of Florida Grand Opera's fall season opener, La Fanciulla del West, illuminates why.
A moment early on in the recent opening-night performance at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium the company's home for its 55th and final season before relocating next year to the Miami Performing Arts Center depicts a mining camp in the California Gold Rush era. After a day-long journey spent searching for a golden future, miners reminisce about the lives they've left behind. One tough youngster can no longer bear the strain and realizes he must either return home or die. "I am sick of the mines, sick of the pickax," he sings. "I want to feel my farmer's plow again. I want to see my mother." The outburst is so heart-breaking that his fellow workers organize a collection and give up the little they have to send him back.
This gorgeous episode is one of many in which ineffably touching melodies and delicate orchestrations blend in a drama that is shamelessly sentimental yet real it also hints at the beauty still to come in this gripping work. Thrillingly conducted by Stewart Robertson and directed with intelligence and vision by Lillian Groag, this production is also treated as great theater. As did last year's brilliant Paul Bunyan, Fanciullacomes to Miami through the Glimmerglass-New York City Opera pipeline, and, with only a few reservations, La Fanciulla del West provides a glorious beginning to Florida Grand Opera's farewell term and will likely set the standard for the remainder of the season.
Based on David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, Puccini's opera was commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Opera House and had its world premiere there in 1910. The composer saw Belasco's hit on Broadway in 1907 while in town for the Met premieres of his Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. Soon after, he acquired the rights and set to work on what would become his American opera. In the end, of course, Fanciulla turned out to be as American as Madama Butterfly is Japanese, Italian through and through, a masterpiece by a genius working at the top of his form.
This opera is not easy to mount. The plot is a classically simple love triangle Minnie, a tomboy saloon girl with a heart of gold, falls for a stranger named Ramerrez (a.k.a. the outlaw Dick Johnson) as the evil Sheriff Jack Rance, who lusts after the heroine, hunts the bandit down. There is, however, nothing simple about the details, a dozen juicy small parts that test the chorus's mettle, not to mention the leading roles that are notoriously difficult to bring to life: Enrico Caruso starred as the original Johnson, and tenors remain in his shadow nearly a century later. The role of Minnie has been called an Italian Valkyrie, and last century's greatest Wagnerian soprano, Birgit Nilsson, perhaps made the biggest splash with it. The nasty Sheriff Rance has been easier to cast, but only because we seem to live in an age of plentiful baritones. Fanciulla's score, with its exposed high notes, calls for big voices and big hearts.
The payoff, too, is big, and it was exquisite under Robertson's baton. The pacing on opening night was swift, often kind to the voices, and never less than probing, yet the conductor's penchant for fast tempos did not hinder the wells of emotion, the gut-wrenching musical touches that make this opera is unforgettable, the unaccompanied choral waltz that is Minnie's first dance, the extended duets in Acts One and Two, or the amazing string of arias for the tenor and the soprano in Act Three that somehow ease into the serene final curtain.
Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs brought a distinctive voice, if not always enough volume, to the title role. A native Californian, she cut a fine figure in Constance Hoffman's leather-and-lace costumes. If her daintiness while holding a gun like her vocally timid entrance and her underpowered finale created a sort of mini-Minnie, her multicolored instrument nevertheless convinced for long stretches of this grueling role.
Russian Mikhail Agafonov made a vocally splendid Dick Johnson, with none of the baritonal shades the role often attracts but rather a resplendent golden sheen. Perhaps best of all was Anthony Michaels-Moore as Jack Rance: The British baritone made a fine American sheriff and his powerful tone, superb breath support and impeccable Italian diction made a persuasive case for the genius of Puccini.
Similarly, John Conklin's sets a long way from Belasco's naturalism but still true to the golden California skies were stunning. Timothy Kuhns made a strong impression as Sonora. Kudos to Douglas Kinney Frost's chorus, individually and collectively at their best here. As assorted miners and cowboys, standouts included Liam Moran (the homesick miner), Jin Hwan Byun, Dean Anthony, and Michael Testa. Save for few lapses, Groag's stage direction rang true, as did the music. This is one beautiful show.