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: Lyric Opera’s “Ernani”

Masterful Execution of a Verdi Unknown

 Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Ernani 10/24/09.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

Ernani

At the Civic Opera House
By Giuseppe Verdi
Based on Victor Hugo’s tragedy Hernani
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Conducted by Renato Palumbo
Stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Thru November 23rd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Ernani09 The Lyric Opera presents Ernani, an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1844. The Italian opera with projected English subtitles tells the tale of Elvira’s suitors, all fighting for her love: Ernani, Don Carlo-King of Spain and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The outlaw, Ernani storms Silva’s castle to abduct Elvira. He runs into the King and an Elvira abduction already in progress. Silva enters furious that his fiancé is being double-abducted in his own home. In love with Ernani, Elvira escapes her marriage to Silva by becoming a hostage of the King’s. Because Silva keeps him from being arrested, Ernani pledges his life to him. In Ernani terms, this promise means Silva gets to decide when Ernani will die. So, after the King pardons everyone and orders Elvira to marry Ernani, who shows up as the wedding crasher? Silva appears and asks Ernani, “poison or dagger?” Ernani chooses a dagger, stabs himself and dies in Elvira’s arms.

A brief announcement at the beginning of Act II informs the audience that Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) begs forgiveness at his inability to sing at his optimal level. Because of the faulty microphone, it’s unclear what the issue is. The person next to me asks, “did he say tracheotomy?” I’m certain it is a trace of bronchitis or another ailment. No matter what Licitra’s struggle is, his performance is stellar. Only in duets with the powerful soprano performance of Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) did it occur to me that Licitra might be in a challenging match. Along with the King (Boaz Daniel) and Silva (Giacomo Prestia), the opera is sung magnificently. Adding to the grandeur of the performance, set and costume designer Scott Marr uses the huge cast adorned in finery or cloaked in black to contrast a wedding from the catacombs. With multiple wardrobe and set changes, the dynamic production is eye candy to the audience. Elvira’s costumes, designed by Donna Langman, are particularly exquisite.

 

Ernani01 Ernani08

Ernani is a must see for its magnificent performances, beautiful costumes, and elaborate sets. The actual opera? Not so much. Verdi wrote Ernani early in his career at age 31. It doesn’t have the memorable arias of his later works, like; La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The story is clunky. In Act II, Elvira tells Ernani she decided to marry Silva when she heard he was dead. What? I want Ernani to ask, or rather sing, “what happened during the intermission that made you think I was dead?” It’s also unclear why these three men all want Elvira when it’s obvious she only wants Ernani. Is it because she dresses nice? I don’t get it. And because it’s an opera, I’m ready for a tragic ending to a love story. Possible alternative endings after Ernani and Elvira’s wedding: Silva kills Ernani, the king kills Ernani, Elvira chokes on a piece of cake and because Ernani thinks she’s dead, he kills himself, she spits out cake realizes he’s dead and kills herself. But Ernani’s suicide because he promised Silva, his nemesis, that he would? Elvira totes around a dagger threatening to kill herself throughout the show but ultimately doesn’t as Ernani dies in her arms. Unsatisfying, Verdi!

Rating: «««

 

More: Watch the Ernani video trailer.     |     Listen to Ernani scene commentary.

 

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Pictures by Dan Rest

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