Puccini's opera La Fanciulla del West - the original spaghetti Western - will forever be remembered as the opera they renamed "Grannie Get Your Gun" after Gwyneth Jones took on the role of its buckskin heroine, Minnie, very late in her career. That didn't do too much for the opera's already somewhat bruised credibility, though the 1977 Royal Opera production - spectacularly designed by the James Bond man, Ken Adam - gave this neglected piece a new lease of life.
Neglect generally tends to point to inferiority, but La Fanciulla is unquestionably up there with Puccini's best-crafted pieces. Taken seriously, performed believably, it is terrific value, with the power to stir and thrill and touch us as surely as any of his operas. Besides, it gave Andrew Lloyd Webber his best thematic ideas for The Phantom of the Opera. No wonder it is so familiar.
So, why the neglect? Well, the 17 named roles, all of them male, barring the gun-totin' Minnie and her token Native American squaw, Wowkle, probably has something to do with it. That and the fact that our "golden girl of the West" is not exactly top of the lyric-dramatic soprano's hit list. A bull's-eye, then, to Opera Holland Park for finding a Minnie at all, leave alone one as good as Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs.
She is, in a word, terrific - mature enough to make this earth-mother figure believable, youthful and spirited enough to have us choking back the tears at her first kiss. And still thinking that a shotgun wedding might be on the cards.
Minnie has the best entrance in all opera: there's a brawl in her saloon, a shot rings out, and there she is in the doorway, smoking gun in hand, her rolling theme swelling proudly from the orchestra. The conductor John Gibbons made the most of that, though we needed to make allowances for the semi-open air acoustic, which has a tendency to rob both orchestra (the City of London Sinfonia) and voices of their amplitude. Blancke-Biggs, though, has more than enough voice and vocal authority to hold her own against the many different male timbres.
The voice has the plangency and steely core to make its presence felt, the smoky chest- voice colour to give it depth and warmth, and a free and uninhibited top. When she sings of her humble origins and her dream to "rise as high as the stars", Puccini has her do just that. But Blancke-Biggs wrings pathos, not bathos, from all of her big moments. Pleading for her lover's life in the masterly final scene, she nails her "boys", and us, with the line: "None of you ever said, 'that's enough', when I gave you the best years of my youth." Their response finally makes this a five-handkerchief opera.
But that's also because the director, Jo Davies, sets up Minnie's boys (her ragazzi ) so well in the first act. Plenty of character detail, animation, a believable rough and readiness against Will Bowen's plain wood frameworks. The crumbling façade of the Holland Park Theatre has something of the Californian mission about it, only fitting given the missionary zeal on display.
The tenor Ravil Atlas (Dick) was struggling with a throat infection, so some of his heroics were pitched down the octave, giving Oli Sigurdarson (Jack Rance) an unfair advantage with his intimidating bass-baritone. Minnie still cheated him out of the poker game, though, flinging down her winning hand to Puccini's best Hollywood melodramatics, complete with howling wind-machine. Only in the movies? Think again.
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