tue 16/07/2024

The Girl of the Golden West, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

The Girl of the Golden West, Opera North

The Girl of the Golden West, Opera North

Musical glory and dramatic shortcomings in Puccini's Californian gold rush extravaganza

Minnie (Alwyn Mellor) gets butch for Dick (Rafael Rojas)Clive Barda

Puccini’s unlikely Spaghetti Western still convinces in Aletta Collins’ vivid new production. The incongruities in this uneven yet powerful work aren’t dodged but embraced. Most of them are musical: the sheer delight, for instance, of seeing stage action which occasionally resembles a jerky early Western played out to rich, blazing orchestral sonorities.

Disappointingly, the honky tonk piano in the corner of the Polka Saloon is never heard. You giggle as the stage lights come on behind Giles Cadle’s witty curtain, the shadows shifting from left to right as an ominous-hatted silhouette appears. The Polka Saloon scenes work well, Opera North’s male chorus members convincingly decked out in a pleasing range of false beards and moustaches. Initially they’re funny – jostling one another at the bar to order straight whiskies, but coalescing at the drop of a ten-gallon hat to form a menacing, Grimesian mob.

Act 2 of Opera North's The Girl of the Golden WestThere are several striking individual performances – Eddie Wade’s Sonora is nicely characterised and beautifully sung, while Bonaventura Bottone as bartender Nick has a delicious extended solo at the start of the last act. Your eyes are quickly drawn to Callum Thorpe’s isolated Billy Jackrabbit, forever excluded, always pushed to the side.

Musically it's stunning. Richard Farnes cleverly manages to make one of Puccini’s boldest operas sound satisfyingly loud whilst never overwhelming the voices, and revels in the score’s cosmopolitan modernity. At several points it’s as if you’re listening to mature Ravel. The wittier details are nicely pointed, particularly the clip clop rhythms heralding the entrance of the Wells Fargo man sung by Graeme Danby.

The shortcomings are largely dramatic. Robert Hayward’s Jack Rance looks the part and sings well, but frequently appears ill at ease, standing awkwardly on stage. Vocally, Alwyn Mellor sounds perfect in the key role of saloon owner Minnie, but her scenes with Rance often feel stilted. Best is Rafael Rojas’s Dick Johnson – an engaging stage presence, a rogue you’re willing to forgive. Alas, the dramatic central act, set entirely in Minnie’s snowbound mountainside cabin (pictured above), comes uncomfortably close to farce at several points, particularly when Johnson has to hide in a wardrobe or shimmy up a rickety ladder to the attic. The closing poker game borders on the ludicrous, despite Hayward's and Mellor’s best efforts.

Act 3 of Opera North's The Girl of the Golden WestCollins’s last act redeems the evening – a magnificently choreographed, emotionally charged climax. The mens’ preparation for Johnson’s execution (pictured left) is deeply unsettling and you’re ready to believe that it’ll go ahead. Minnie’s dramatic entrance, and her pleading for her lover’s survival is powerfully done, and the pair’s exit is fully deserved. And it’s to Puccini’s credit that the work closes not in a blaze of redemptive sunlight but quietly, thoughtfully. Kathryn Walker’s Wowkle adds a refreshing touch of sweetness in her Act 2 cameo. The production is superbly lit by Andreas Fuchs, and Cadle’s realistic sets look and feel exactly right.

Best is Rafael Rojas’s Dick Johnson – an engaging stage presence, a rogue you’re willing to forgive


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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