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No Excuses Necessary

Puccini's 'La Fanciulla del West'
at Grange Park Opera


Given that Grange Park Opera has the advantage of the English Chamber Orchestra playing in the pit this year, it is understandable that the company should want to stage an opera like Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, in which the orchestra plays an important role.

La Fanciulla del West dates from the period following Madama Butterfly when Puccini's search for a new, exotic subject for an opera was combined with his desire to modernise his technique. So La Fanciulla del West contains few full blown arias and the score uses a variety of devices, such as whole tone scales, which Puccini developed from his studies of other composers such as Debussy. The opera had a triumphant première in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn), but it has always languished slightly on the side-lines; though the 1977 Royal Opera Production with famously realistic sets by Ken Adam did a great deal to re-furbish the opera's reputation.

That the opera is relatively ignored is, to a certain extent, understandable. La Fanciulla de West is a strange beast. The plot requires a very specific location, the Californian Gold-Rush. It may be possible to alter or modernise the opera's location but it is difficult to see how this change might improve the work. Like Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, the opera is dependent on a specific place and time. But the characters, the naïve but tough Minnie and the tough but sentimental miners, are not really the sort of folk that you would expect to find in Gold-Rush California. So the cast and director must, essentially, construct their own performance space and convince us of the internal logic of the piece even if the characterisation is not 'realistic'. After all, many verismo operas include characters that are far more emotional than they would be in real life.

For Act 1, director Stephen Medcalf and his designer Francis O'Connor presented us with stylised realism, an endless bar surmounted with rows of whisky bottles. Some reviewers have seen this design as a nod to Ken Adam's Royal Opera House sets. The bar restricted the already small Grange Park Opera stage so that the cast was crammed in closely, in way that was entirely believable and made more convincing the intense, hot house atmosphere and easily raised tempers.

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Copyright © 26 June 2008 Robert Hugill, London UK


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