La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House, July 2010

A good opera production eschews extraneous effects and irrelevant imagery, allowing the music and singing to convey the story directly to the audience, and this Nigel Jamieson production is a fine example.

The brief prelude shows black and white moving images of the wild west, on a screen at the rear of the stage. Then we find ourselves in a long tavern among men who are almost ghostly in their grey appearance, their make-up reminiscent of the early silent movies. Into this atmosphere of drinking and gambling after a day of gold mining, appears Minnie, the only colourful thing on stage. It’s a wonderful contrast — the warmth of the feisty heroine, joined later by the reformable bandit Dick Johnson, compared to the colourless nature of the sheriff who wants her for himself, along with the miners, all grateful to Minnie for her cheerful strength and companionship.

Johnson, Minnie and the Sheriff in Act II, photo by Branco Gaica

She was beautifully played by German soprano Anke Höppner, who gave a stirring performance in Act II and again at the end, after some edginess earlier, and Carlo Barricelli showed enthusiastic bravado and good top notes as Dick Johnson the bandit. John Wegner sang magnificently, portraying a darkly brooding presence as Jack Rance the sheriff, and the orchestra under the baton of Estonian conductor Arvo Volmer drove Puccini’s score forward with great lyricism. Musically this was a gripping performance, and while the opera is unusual among Puccini’s works in having no memorable arias, the emotion of its musical fabric came over very well.

Minnie in Act III with Johnson in the background, photo by Branco Gaica

This new production is extremely welcome in the opera’s anniversary year, particularly since Australia originally produced it just 18 months after its 1910 première in New York. And though the motif of Johnson’s redemption through Minnie’s love lacks the dramatic impact typical of Puccini — there are no deaths in this Western with its happy ending — Nigel Jamieson’s production is as good as it gets. Not only were the sets, costumes and lighting very effective — particularly the lighting by Phil Lethlean — I liked the visual designs by Scott Otto Anderson, and the allusions to the world of cinema, already widespread by the time Puccini wrote this opera. The black and white of the silent movie screen at the start reappeared in full colour just before the final curtain, saying ‘The End’.

Performances continue until August 6 — for more details click here.

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