La Fanciulla del West, Grange Park Opera, Hampshire
Tuesday 10 June 2008
One by one, the country-house opera companies are swinging into action, each in its own way. Grange Park is an 18th-century Grecian temple in wonderfully theatrical decay: each year a crumbling section is buffed up, and each year its director appeals for sponsorship of individual singers in the year to come.
As designed by Francis O'Connor, the polka saloon in Puccini's La fanciulla del West made a convincing simulacrum of gold-rush California in 1849, even if the miners who thronged it were suspiciously clean, and the snow-machine responded too eagerly on cue to the emotional climaxes on stage. Taking advantage of the plot's initial slow burn, director Stephen Medcalf got everyone moving with animal energy, while conductor Rory Macdonald conjured gilt-edged Puccini from the English Chamber Orchestra. By the time the protagonists appeared, disbelief had been satisfactorily suspended.
But the romantic fit between John Hudson's bandit Dick Johnson and Cynthia Makris's bar-girl Minnie proved less than ideal. Hudson sang quite softly but with a lovely Italianate legato, while Makris all but blew him off stage. Her speciality has been singing the fearsome princess Turandot, and she gave no sign of understanding the very different character she was playing here. When Minnie sings, "You won't believe it, but I've never danced in my life", one was tempted to concur: this was a woman of the world, unabashed in her underwear, coolly in control of the men prowling hungrily round her. Singing fortissimo almost throughout, she completely missed the conversational rhythms that make this opera so effective.
But there was much to admire in the way the drama was sprung and fleshed out. It's essentially about loneliness: everyone is a lost soul, longing for the warmth of home, and the chorus brilliantly embodied this, oscillating between the savagery of the wolf-pack and the kindness that desperation can engender. Excellent performances, too, from Olafur Sigurdarson as Rance, and Karina Lucas as Wowkle.
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