What do spaghetti westerns and Giacomo Puccini have in common? Aside from their Italian heritage, very little as it turns out, especially when it comes to opera.
Based on stage director Doug Scholz-Carlson’s comments in the program guide, some audience members may have anticipated Clint Eastwood-style heroics in the Minnesota Opera’s opening night production of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” on September 20, 2014. There was gun-fire to be sure, particularly when Claire Rutter as the title character, Minnie, makes her Annie Oakley-style entrance in the first act. But Chairman Mao’s “power [that] grows from the barrel of a gun” remains subordinate to the love she feels for Rafael Davila’s bandit, Ramerrez.
The misapprehension originates with the title of Puccini’s opera which was based on David Belasco’s 1910 melodrama,”The Girl of the Golden West.” Often translated directly as “Girl of the West,” “fanciulla” also can mean maid or maiden. Despite earning her living in an 1849 gold rush saloon surrounded by men, Minnie still reserves her first kiss for the man who loves her for herself, not for what she makes him feel. To a 21st century audience familiar with “friends with benefits” relationships, Minnie’s sexual reservations may seem old-fashioned. But in a story line filled with themes of manly honor and vigilante justice, her chaste romanticism is strong enough to change people’s lives and triumph over vengeance.
Given this sentimental material, a cast and crew must project deep conviction to convey all the emotional turmoil contained in Puccini’s score. Leads Rutter, Davila, and Greer Grimsley as Minnie’s spurned admirer Sheriff Jack Rance, make an excellent vocal love triangle. John Robert Lindsay, Nicholas Nelson, Andrew Lovato, and the rest of the chorus establish the miners’ loneliness and heartbreak as well as their wrath when they feel Minnie has betrayed them. Scenic designer Raffaele Del Salvio’s naturalistic sets convey the rugged beauty of the Western frontier while conductor Michael Christie and the orchestra give a lush interpretation of Puccini’s impressionistic score.
Minnie reflects the sharp-shooting skills and independent spirit of the American West’s Annie Oakley, but her unselfish devotion to Ramerrez remains true to the 19th century conviction of the transformative power of love. Spaghetti westerns seem to delight in portraying all the havoc and destruction vigilante vengeance can render, but “La Fanciulla del West” resembles those films only superficially. It is, instead, a paean to true love’s ability to redeem men and turn aside violence. Saturday night’s presentation of those themes earned this production a standing ovation. See it and decide yourself if it was merited.