Opera Warhorses

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Review: Impressive, Compelling – “Girl of the Golden West” at Santa Fe Opera, July 1, 2016

July 3rd, 2016

The Santa Fe Opera opened its 60th season with Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West)” in a new co-production with the English National Opera.

The melodramatic work, that contains some of Puccini’s finest music, demands power singers with well-honed dramatic skills. The first night performance was a triumph.

Patricia Racette’s Minnie

New Hampshire soprano Patricia Racette is universally acknowledged as one of opera’s great contemporary singing actresses. In the past decade she has shown an affinity for Puccini’s strongly-etched heroines. [Links to my selected reviews of eight of her Puccini roles are found below.]

I would argue that her Minnie is among Racette’s finest portrayals. She has the requisite voice for the role – power that gleams at the top of her range, with a middle voice that has the flexibility to express a range of emotions – vulnerability, anger, empathy, and, ultimately, resignation to love.

[Below: Minnie (Patricia Racette, center left, with revolver in outstretched hand) is determined to save Dick Johnson (Gwyn Hughes Jones, center) from her friends who have formed a lynch mob; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Dick Johnson

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones brings the spinto power that the role of the outlaw Dick Johnson requires. Hughes Jones displayed an intense vocal beauty in his duets with Patricia Racette’s Minnie and in the melodic third act aria Ch’ella mi creda, one of the greatest of Puccini’s compositions for the tenor voice.

[Below: Dick Johnson (Gywn Hughes Jones, left) shares his feelings with Minnie (Patricia Racette, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


[For my report of his appearance in another iconic Puccini tenor role, see: Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016.]

Mark Delavan’s Jack Rance

New Jersey baritone Mark Delavan was a formidable Jack Rance, the sheriff whose public position and private desires have become disturbingly intertwined, especially when the outlaw he seeks to apprehend becomes his rival for the woman he desires.

Delavan excels in the dramatic baritone roles of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini [see The Dawning of a New Wotan: Interview with Mark Delavan Part 1 and The Dawning of a New Wotan – An Interview with Mark Delavan, Part 2]. He provided a wide-ranging display of the dramatic possibilities of this role.

Never a snarling villain, Delavan’s nuanced Rance is at once ardent and insecure in his pursuit of Minnie’s hand. His portrait is one of a tough but honorable lawman, who is willing to resort to frontier “summary justice”.

Yet Delavan’s Rance (in one of the most dramatic conclusions of an act in all of Puccini’s operas) refuses to renege on his promise to let Johnson go when, under suspicious circumstances, he loses a hand of poker to Minnie).

[Below: Sheriff Jack Rance (Mark Delavan, left) and Minnie (Patricia Racette, right) play a fateful hand of poker; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Raymond Aceto’s Ashby, Allan Glassman’s Nick and Craig Verm’s Sonora

Puccini and his librettists have given each of the named ragazzi – the individual miners – a distinct personality, so any “Girl of the Golden West” performance provides opportunities for singers skilled in creating memorable characters.

In a brilliant example of luxury casting, major artists who are present in Santa Fe for important roles in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliette” and Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” were enlisted for the “character” roles of Ashby, Nick and Sonora.

Ohio bass-baritone Raymond Aceto was praiseworthy as Wells Fargo agent Ashby, Aceto’s rich, sonorous lower register adding star quality to a role pivotal to the opera’s plot. [For an assessment of other performances in which Racette and Aceto appear together, see the reference to the Houston “Tosca” below and also Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014.]

New York tenor Allan Glassman, who is an esteemed veteran of the major character tenor roles [see, for example, Lindstrom, Grimsley, Glassman Gleam in Sensuous, Searing San Diego Opera “Salome” – January 28, 2012], was sympathetic in the role of the savvy bartender, Nick.

[Below: Ashby (Raymond Aceto, left) waits in the U. S. Marshall’s office with Nick (Allan Gassman, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Texas baritone Craig Verm stood out in the role of Sonora. Verm effectively portrayed a miner who, despite an initial decision to join Delavan’s Sheriff Rance in the summary execution of Hughes Jones’ Dick Johnson, instantly succumbed to the pleas of Racette’s Minnie to spare Johnson’s life.

[Below: Sonora (Craig Verm, right) holds a pistol on the captured outlaw, Dick Johnson (Gwyn Hughes Jones, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The Santa Fe Opera Apprentices 

The remaining members of the large cast were 26 of the 2016 season’s Santa Fe Opera Apprentice singers.

Tennessee baritone Nicholas Davis was Jake Wallace, a role distinguished by the character’s haunting arietta Che faranno i vecchi miei about what the miners left at home.

North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian Smith sang the role of Larkens, who is so tortured by his homesickness that he abandons his dreams of prospecting for gold, as his fellow miners chip in for his return home.

For the other miners whose names we know, California baritone Jared Bybee was Handsome, Mexican baritone Jorge Espino was Sid, California tenor John Matthew Myers was Trin, Texas tenor Tyson Miller was Joe, Virginia baritone Andrew Paulson was Happy and New York tenor Derrek Stark was Harry.

The American Indians Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit were performed respectively by California soprano Kristen Choi and New Hampshire bass-baritone James Harrington. Florida bass-baritone Alan Higgs was the outlaw Jose Castro. Pennsylvania tenor Benjamin Werley was a Courier.

Other ragazzi included Ohio bass-baritone Andrew Bogard, Pennsylvania tenor Adam Bonanni, New Jersey tenor Stephen Carroll, Pennsylvania tenor Peter Scott Drackley, Iowa baritone Thaddeus Ennen, Turkish bass Onay Kose, New York bass David Leigh, Michigan tenor Stephen Martin, Utah tenor Andrew Marks Maughan, Florida tenor Cooper Nolan, Pennsylvania baritone Jarrett Ott, Texas tenor Galeano Salas, Florida tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli and Texas bass-baritone Andrew Simpson.

Eight of these “unnamed” miners have “named” parts, including some with major roles, in one or more of the season’s other operas.

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra

The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra was conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, who is, among his other duties, the music director of The Dallas Opera [see A Conversation with Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.]

It was a passionate, rousing performance with a melodramatic sweep that suggested a deep appreciation by Villaume of Puccini’s score. The sound of the Santa Fe Opera orchestra was characteristically brilliant.

Richard Jones’ production

The delights of the evening included the staging by British director Richard Jones within the  beautifully conceived scenic design by German designer Miriam Buether.

[Below: Miriam Buether’s set for the Polka Saloon; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Writing a decade ago, I was a detractor of his notorious staging of a Tchaikovsky opera [see Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in San Francisco – June 12, 2005] that I argued needlessly transformed an opera’s storyline for what I believed was an irrelevant purpose.

His staging of “Fanciulla”, however, was not only respectful of Puccini’s work, but masterfully captured the realities of the Gold Rush – particularly the loneliness of men (and of Minnie as well) separated from their homes and families.

[Below: Minnie (Patricia Racette, right) attempts to comfort the wounded Dick Johnson (Gwyn Hughes Jones, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


In this production, Jones’ often-used device of organizing scenes within box sets on a larger stage, worked well.

By crowding the miners within the first act Polka Saloon or on the steps of the third act’s U. S. Marshall’s office, Jones’ staging gave the appearance of a tightly knit, but easily excitable, community.

The first act stage directions suggest that the Polka Saloon is at times a miner’s dance hall (in which men danced only with each other, since Minnie never learned to dance until taught by Dick Johnson).

Locating the miners’ (and Minnie’s and Johnson’s) dancing in a room adjoining the Polka was an effective touch that enhanced the flow of the action.

Collaboration with English National Opera

The Santa Fe Opera has shown a strong affinity for British opera directors, who have staged many of the company’s most successful offerings of recent years. This is Director Richard Jones’ Santa Fe Opera debut assignment.

Having successfully exported its co-production of Handel’s “Radamisto” to London after its appearance in Santa Fe [see London, Handel, and David Alden: ENO’s “Radamisto” – October 13, 2010], the Santa Fe Opera has reciprocated with importing the “Fanciulla” co-production first seen at the English National Opera.

[Below: in the third act set, the miners have gathered before the United States Marshall’s office; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Thoughts on Marketing “Fanciulla” 

I believe that the potential “market” for “Girl of the Golden West” is much greater than opera impresarios suspect, although it likely requires some attention to educating audiences (and the community that produces operas as well).

Even if it were never to reach the performance numbers of the trio of Puccini megahits – “Boheme”, “Tosca” and “Butterfly” – it shares with each of these operas a theatrical solidity that suggests that, if it were produced much more often in productions as effective as that mounted in Santa Fe, it could become an audience favorite.

It should be a regular offering of North American opera companies. For those companies in the American West (where several companies are located that have performed the opera, albeit with long periods between revivals), potential target audiences likely exist.

There are some issues I would raise. First, the opera should be promoted as the masterpiece that it is, rather than being dismissed by such pejorative terms as a “spaghetti western”.  (Applying that phrase to “Fanciulla” belittles both Italian opera and the dramatic life of mining camps in the California Gold Rush.)

Second, the enduring popularity of Wagner’s operas would suggest to me that those audiences who appreciate Wagner’s use of power voices and large orchestras to intensify  dramatic effect, should be drawn to Wagner’s Italian heirs – the verismo composers, and specifically the Puccini of “Fanciulla”.


I enthusiastically recommend the production and cast for both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera. This would be an excellent “first opera” experience.

For my previous reviews of Racette performances of Puccini heroines, see:

The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007, and also,

Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008, and also,

Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009, and also,

Racette, Podles in San Francisco Opera’s Musically Compelling “Suor Angelica” – September 15, 2009, and also,

Gavanelli’s Commanding Presence as San Francisco Opera’s Gianni Schicchi – September 15, 2009, and also,

A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010and also,

Surreal Verismo: Pascoe, Racette and Chanev Offer a Marvelously Melodramatic “Manon Lescaut” – Washington National Opera, March 8, 2013

For my “50-year” retrospectives on performances at the San Francisco Opera, see:

50th Birthday Celebrations: Dorothy Kirsten Rides High in “Girl of the Golden West” – San Francisco Opera, October 1, 1960, and also,

50 Year Anniversaries: “La Fanciulla del West” with Marie Collier and João Gibin – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1965.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews