La Fanciulla del West, Opera Holland Park, OHP, June 2014

The 2014 opera season at Holland Park started off with a bang — a terrific production of Puccini’s Fanciulla. During the overture the stage fills with soldiers viewing an atomic explosion in the Mojave desert, reflecting the setting in California, albeit a century later than the time of the gold rush in the original, and in the background a broad screen shows a panorama of mountains.

Johnson and Minnie, all images Fritz Curzon

Johnson and Minnie, all images OHP/ Fritz Curzon

Towards the end, part of the screen turns into a TWA aeroplane that Dick Johnson and Minnie enter to fly away together, after she arrives on a motorbike to save him from the gallows. Such is the improbably happy ending of this opera where no one dies. Pity about that — I do like a good death scene — but when it was first staged in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera the audience loved it. Well they might, as it was the first ever world premiere at the Met, with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destin singing the main roles. In the far smaller space of Opera Holland Park we had two very fine singers for these roles, both making their OHP debuts. Young American tenor Jeff Gwaltney sang Dick Johnson with excellent emotional expressiveness, and Susannah Glanville, a regular principal for Opera North and other companies, was a stunning Minnie, both vocally and visually — the star of the show.

In this production by Stephen Barlow, one of the best I recall seeing at Holland Park, the wonderful designs by Yannis Thavoris are beautifully lit by Richard Howell. Minnie’s house in Act II was a delight, and when Johnson enters and gives her a kiss we see snow falling on the garbage bins outside, while an electric fire warms the interior. At the start of Act III the house cleverly folds up, and when Minnie arrives towards the end of the act the panorama is suffused with a lovely sunset glow.

Where's Ramerrez (aka Dick Johnson)?

Where’s Ramerrez (aka Dick Johnson)?

Among the abundance of solo roles in this opera I particularly liked Simon Thorpe’s emotionally charged portrayal of Jack Rance the Sheriff, Nicholas Garrett’s excellent performance of Sonora, and the strong singing of Neal Cooper as Nick, particularly in the Act III duet with the Sheriff. The steady hand of Stuart Stratford in the orchestra pit allowed Puccini’s music to hit the high points, and this is a production not to be missed.

Performances continue on various dates until June 21 — for details click here.

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