REVIEW: The Girl of the Golden West (Lyric Opera)

  
  

Sheriffs! Bandits! Damsels! Passion! What’s not to love?

  
  

Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West," playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
The Girl of the Golden West
   
Composed by Giacomo Puccini  
Libretto by
Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civini
Directed by
Vincent Liotta
at
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $56-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I love a good Western. That may come as a surprise to some but maybe more of a surprise is the idea of a great Western opera – in Italian. Giacomo Puccini’s fascination with the American West is gloriously displayed in the Lyric Opera production of La Fanciulla Del West (or The Girl Of The Golden West). My dad used to call Westerns ‘horse operas’ because of all of the drama, brawling, greed, and damsels in distress. Luckily for us, Puccini’s Minnie is no mere damsel-in-distress when embodied by the fabulous soprano Deborah Voight.

Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan RestMs. Voight emanates strength with a healthy dose of ‘don’t mess with me’, making one of the great entrances in an opera – shooting off two rounds from her pistol to break up a fracas at the Polka saloon. Puccini’s interest in the “Wild West” was piqued by the European tours of the Buffalo Bill Western shows that included sharpshooter Annie Oakley. The deal was sealed, then, when – on a visit to New York – Puccini attended the Broadway play Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco.

Ms. Voight’s Minnie has just enough brass and fire to play with the boys and fend off the lascivious charm of the sheriff Jack Rance, played by baritone Marco Vratogna. Mr. Vratogna’s baritone is sexy and sinister. Rance is a sheriff and a gambler who thinks he has a direct line on Minnie’s virtue. Vratogna channels the great Yul Brynner with a shaved head and piercing intense gaze. I wondered if Brynner had modeled his Gunslinger on Jack Rance in the 1973 science fiction Western “Westworld”.

In every Western there must be an outlaw, especially if the bad guy is a smoldering misunderstood one. Enter the great tenor Marcello Giordani as Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson the hunted leader of a murderous gang of thieves out to steal the gold from this mining backwater.

Mr. Giordani has a gorgeous voice with velvety tones that never border on the strident or maudlin. He is a wonderful counterpoint to Ms. Voight’s powerful and clear soprano. Their acting is top notch in portraying two thunderstruck lovers. Voight’s bedroom eyes and womanly countenance enhance her performance. Meanwhile Giordani is quite entrancing and smoldering as her true love enraptured at the thought of one kiss from Minnie.

     
Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest Act 1 of Girl of the Golden West playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest
Debra Voigt with the men of the camp in Act 3 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt in the "Girl of Golden West", playing through February 21st at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest

Mr. Vratogna (Sheriff Rance) and Ms. Voight have an excellent chemistry as well. Sheriff Rance’s intentions are less than honorable. He has a wife and Minnie is more of a trophy to be captured. There is a tense scene with Rance trying to force himself on Minnie and Ms. Voight’s portrayal is explosive in rebuffing him.

The supporting cast of “Fanciulla” is a combination of wonderful voices and fine acting. David Cangelosi is excellent as Nick the Polka bartender. He is a perfect comic relief as he pits the miners against one another in thinking they are at the top of the list for Minnie’s affections. Craig Irvin has a beautiful voice and excellent stage presence as Ashby the Wells Fargo man. I loved the portrayal of Sonora by the baritone Daniel Sutin. He has an exceptionally expressive visage to accompany the voice.

Puccini was my first exposure to opera with a Lyric production of La Boheme back in the 1970’s. His sense of theatre and drama are incomparable. He composed the lush and sweeping tragedies Tosca (recently produced at Lyric ★★★½) and Madama Butterfly. His works infuse humor, irony, and a wonderful sexiness to his characters for which I am grateful. He consistently wrote wonderful roles for women in particular. In “Fanciulla”, the role of Minnie is the only major female among at least forty men on the stage. It’s a powerhouse role to be undertaken by only the best and that is Deborah Voight.

Marco Vratogna, Marcello Giordani in "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest.In my opinion, Puccini is the greatest theatrical composer history in history, and many have given homage or outright plagiarized his work. The Puccini estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber over blatant lifts from “Fanciulla” in his version of The Phantom of The Opera – and the estate basically won, as Webber settled out of court. I also feel that Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer owe a debt to Puccini for the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers score as well. Puccini’s rich and sweeping washes of sound are perfect for the Technicolor epics of John Ford and Stanley Donen, and – had Puccini he lived further into the 20th century – he  may have been witness to his influence on the American film soundtrack in Douglas Sirk melodramas and film noir classics.

The conductor for the evening was Sir Andrew Davis, who led the orchestra with command and joyful gusto. He has such joy for the music and that translates into an overall beautiful production. The Lyric is also gifted with the legendary Harold Prince as the original producer of “Fanciulla” in 1978 in Chicago. The director Vincent Liotta previously worked with Mr. Prince and has once again directed an excellent production.

Take the time to get acquainted with the treasure that is Chicago’s Lyric Opera. This is theatre and music that has persevered because of its beauty and soul-touching quality. It’s a chance to get dressed nice, put on your Sunday manners, and sit in one of the world’s great opera houses. Brava! Bravo! Te amo Maestro Puccini!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

Act 1 of "Girl of the Golden West" at Lyric Opera. Photo by Dan Rest

     
     

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REVIEW: Tosca (Lyric Opera)

Puccini’s Violent Love Story Masterpiece

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Lyric Opera Presents

Tosca

By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conducted by Stephen Lord
Stage directed by Paula Suozzi
Thru January 29th (ticket info)

By Katy Walsh

tosca11Torture, murder, execution, suicide, despite the violent nature of this warhorse opera, Tosca contributes some of the most familiar romantic opera melodies to the mainstream. The Lyric Opera presents Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. Performed in Italian with projected English supertitles (by Francis Rizzo), Tosca is based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca. Floria Tosca is a celebrated opera singer in Rome. Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, aids an escaped political prisoner and is arrested. The villainous chief of police, Scarpia, coerces Tosca into saving Cavaradossi with promises of sexual favors. Betrayal ensues. No one gets what they want… except the audience. From the first aria of Recondita armonia to the duet Amaro sol per te, the memorable harmonies plunge the audience into an all consuming passionate love story, best experienced as an opera.

The Lyric opened its 2009/2010 season with this crowd pleaser and remounted it this month for a three week winter escape. The principals have changed for this mini-run but the sets and the huge supporting cast are the same. Act I in the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle ends with a visual explosion. The house of worship is already decked out with ornate details befitting the 1800’s (set designer Renzo Mongiardino). Cue the Chicago Children’s Choir, several clergy and church-goers in various liturgical vestments and Sunday best finery (costumes by Marcel Escoffier), the 100+ people on stage are merely a spectacular backdrop for Scarpia’s vow to destroy Cavaradossi and have Tosca. It’s these elaborate dramatic moments that elicit the inaudible oohs and aahs usually reserved for fireworks.

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Even without the stimulation of extensive sets and costumes, Tosca is still one of Puccini’s masterpieces, sung to perfection by the newest principals. Violeta Urmana (Tosca) sings magnificently through a range of emotions; irrational, jealousy, demanding, enraged, passionate, and desperate. Marco Berti (Cavaradossi) is the lover of beautiful things with unfortunate timing that leads to trouble with his diva girlfriend, an escaped prisoner, and evil police chief. Lucio Gallo is the creepy Baron Scarpia. He delivers wicked lyrics (translated) like “I lust, and then I pursue the one I desire, I satisfy myself, and throw her away” and “How you despise me but that is just how I want you.” Certainly, every woman in the audience wants to stab this guy – but, of course, not until after the final note of Lyric’s exquisite Tosca is heard.

Rating: ★★★½

SPOILER ALERT: Tosca committing suicide is questionable. The dramatic moment is lost behind a prison wall as if she is just escaping. But maybe that’s the Lyric Opera twist, Tosca finally gets a happy ending. Tosca escapes to sing again!

Note: All pictures by Dan Rest

 

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