Stravinsky said that we should not learn to respect music but to love it. So far, the current season at the Lyric Opera has induced more of the former in me: I'm glad I saw Verdi's Macbeth but don't need to see it again. Their current production, The Girl of the Golden West, however, I found easily enjoyable, evoking a more visceral reaction without requiring a lot of overthinking. The Girl ("La funciulla") is an opera I would gladly see again.
While most opera reviews focus on the singers, who can make or break an opera, La funciulla is more about the orchestra. Though the singers were flawless, the orchestra stole the show. More overtly than in most operas, the orchestra manipulates the drama, evoking stability, confusion, and effusions of joy. Each main character has signature music that gets referenced and woven together. Minnie's theme, the most striking, is heard in the brief overture and then accompanies her in her first entrance and in her moments of intense passion. Her lover, the bandit Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson (classic alias!), has to earn his theme as he serenades her in the second act. This melody is heard in the orchestra throughout the rest of the opera. (Andrew Lloyd Webber found this theme so enticing that he plagiarized it (subconsciously?) for "The Music of the Night" under "Silently the senses abandon their defenses"; I kept trying to figure out why it sounded familiar; Puccini's version is better; Webber got sued and had to pay damages to Puccini's heirs.)
To my ears, Puccini did some borrowing himself, much of the whole-tone transitions sounding reminiscent of Debussy, whose La Mer had come out 5 years before La funciulla. The result showed a composer at the height of his powers fusing a variety of musical languages seamlessly to good effect--even Strauss. You could also hear a few pentatonic melodies in the orchestra evoking folk songs as well as his usual bag of harmonic tricks.
The orchestra is so important to the plot, in fact, that there are many moments where the singers have trouble being heard. I didn't mind. The music seemed more important, and the surtitles clued us in to the words.
Though the program lists practically a dozen miners--no Sneezy or Doc but there is Handsome and Happy--there are only 3 important characters to know: Minnie (the "girl"), Ramerrez / Johnson, and Jack Rance the Sheriff. Jack is the strong arm of the law, but this is the wild west so he becomes the villain while the bandit is the hero. Rance's intentions toward Minnie confuse his morality as he sinks into despair, vying to win her at any cost. (What good is winning a woman against her will? File that under: things I will never understand.)
Minnie is sung by Deborah Voigt who seems to inhabit the role with ease and poise. She is tough but sensitive, content but yearning, a rugged individual in search of companionship. Voigt doesn't have much opportunity to shine in the first act--her first entrance coming out from the bottom of her register, buried by the orchestra--but as her character emerges,
Voigt shows her power, especially in her upper register. By the end, she has endeared Minnie to the audience and rides off with their hearts--into the sunset.
Marcello Giordani played her lover, Ramerrez, who first enters and subsequently woos her under his alias, Dick Johnson. [It just screams "not-an-alias", doesn't it?] Like Voigt, he finally shined in the second act as he convinces Minnie of his love. He is the bad boy but so darn earnest, becoming the hero despite his past. It was almost surreal to see Giordani as the quintessential Italian tenor embody this bandito in California, but I wouldn't have it any other way. He voice was clear and effortless, and his long high note in the second act felt almost weightless.
Marco Vratogna made his Lyric debut as Sheriff Jack Rance with great results. The Italian baritone made Rance into a complex 3-dimensional character, starting out as a likable upholder of the peace and slowly sinking into an almost psychotic obsession of Minnie. A good strong voice, I look forward to seeing him in future Lyric productions.
In addition to the 3 leads, there were too many miners to name (or remember), who often joined together in a rousing all-male chorus. The stage sometimes seemed almost cluttered with men, but their sound was impeccable.
Chills. I heard recently that certain pop music producers have isolated what it is in music that elicits the "chills" up and down the spine. Puccini and co must have figured this out too, for I had several spine tingles: several because of the pure joy of Minnie's theme, one from Giordani's high note, and one because of the ingenious solution to the ending devised by
Nitpick. I wish the curtain hadn't opened for the quasi-overture. I was unsure if there was some pertinent action happening on stage; there was not. I would have rather just immerse myself in the music to get a sense of the sound world.
One of Puccini's last operas, the only one that takes place in America, La funciulla is an optimistic love story--in contrast to Puccini's other operas, which tend to evoke tears of a different kind. The music is exquisitely composed and effectively manipulative: there's almost something cinematic about how it underscores the action. Though there are no famous arias like many other opera classics, there is a recognizable melody thanks to Mr. Lloyd Webber. [The Puccini heirs should be thanking him! And then stringing him up by his nose for such a cheap knock-off.] This cast is stellar, and the new production is unnaturally realistic. I hope to see this opera gain the popularity it deserves.