Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

How The West Was Sung

June 19, 2010

Salvatore Licitra and Deborah Voigt
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2010

Much to my surprise, and perhaps against my better judgment, I found myself rather enjoying San Francisco Opera’s current production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West last night. Admittedly, it’s not an opera I was overly familiar with going into, so it may have benefited from my having little in my mind to compare it to. On paper, this Fanciulla had a number of strikes against it. First off was a big-ticket “celebrity” cast comprised of several individuals whose track records are increasingly spotty at best. Salvatore Licitra is not a name that makes me want to buy a ticket to anything, but his performance as Dick Johnson di Sacramento was quite good vocally. No snap, crackle, or pop here and there was comparably little strain in his upper register. This is the second time I’ve heard him perform admirably in recent years making me think perhaps I should reevaluate my position on him. Then there is Deborah Voigt as the titular Golden Girl. Of course, the party line these days is that she doesn’t have the voice she once did. And I will agree her top notes in particular can be shouted and shrill, but I think it’s unfair to put too much focus on the changes in her voice over time. She still shapes vocal lines with real beauty and her acting is quite good. Her San Francisco Minnie, the first of many she’ll sing with later stops in New York and Chicago, is convincing despite the Dale Evans leatherette get-up she has to wear here.

The production itself is clearly in love with Hollywood visions of the West. And while this isn’t a bad thing, the production is often hampered by a number of half-measures that keep it from being more than unobtrusively pleasant. Imported from Palermo under the direction of Lorenzo Mariani with sets by Maurizio Balò, the show kicks off with miners rappelling down a large red-hued rock wall that becomes a back drop for all the interiors in the rest of the opera. It’s immediately reminiscent of Ray’s Johnny Guitar, but one’s hopes for a Trucolor bath with the likes of Mercedes McCambridge are soon dashed with more run-of-the-mill visions of the old West. I liked the snow-covered cliffs surrounding Minnie’s wall-less cabin in Act II, and the field of oil lamps used for the final duet in Act I had an appropriate Romantic resonance. Of course, there is the obligatory live horse crammed into Act III which always comes off to me as more sad than spectacular in this day and age.

The major asset of this particular evening, though, was the San Francisco Opera orchestra under music director Nicola Luisotti. He reportedly is a big advocate of this piece and he led a performance that was Wagnerian in proportions. Not that it was overly serious or Germanic by any means, but it was played with a real Romantic flair and care that made an excellent case for the depth and complexity of Puccini’s score. And while the opera itself is weighed down with the numerous weaknesses of the libretto, Luisotti was having none of it, communicating much more than what was contained in the comparably insufficient words sung by the onstage characters. Which is never a bad thing for an opera to do.


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