OPERA / For the boys: Gwyneth Jones and six-shooters. Pow] Edward Seckerson on Puccini's La Fanciulla del West

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The Independent Culture
Someone should devise a book - Great Operatic Entrances. And when they do, Minnie, La Fanciulla del West, will be right up there in pride of place. With a name like Minnie, you'd think she'd want to slip in quietly. But no. In she sails mid shoot-out to music suggestive of the second coming - the kind of orchestral effusion that most composers save up for the denouement. But this is Puccini, and there is bigger and better where that came from.

Opera was predestined to go West. Look at the potential: same old intrigues, same old show-downs, only wilder, woollier - and on horseback. A rowdy, pistol-packin' man's world, ripe for muscular ensembles and a gallery of appetising bit-parts. And the locations. Puccini couldn't wait to compose those - big tunes for the big country. Having said that, La Fanciulla del West is about as American as Sergio Leone.

Throwing in the Cakewalk and a smattering of other half-baked syncopations just doesn't do it. Puccini didn't know his Old West from his Deep South: what's Stephen Foster doing in gold rush country? But who cares? Just accept that this is the original spaghetti western, that it's full of half-digested Americanisms and people who say 'Hello' a lot.

And yet Fanciulla also has a heart of gold. The character of Minnie, earth mother in a man's world, really does work. She's so much more than just the feminine element, the romantic interest (with a hero called Dick, the prospect for romance is anyway somewhat compromised).

She's mother, sister, friend, teacher to all her 'boys' of the Polka Saloon. She changes them with her lessons in humility and compassion - and, ultimately, redemption. And maybe because there's something innately motherly about Dame Gwyneth Jones, she proves more genuinely touching in the process than many more obviously qualified candidates for the role.

The spectacle of Dame Gwyneth brandishing six-shooters was something I had long hoped to see. Better late than never. This is a good role for her, one she might have sung earlier. She still has all the notes for it - astonishing when you consider the length and breadth of her career in the heaviest soprano fach of all.

All right, so the colour and cast of the voice is not ideally Italianate, never has been, and the Jones 'scoop' has graduated from affectation to become an integral part of line, whatever she sings. And all right, so things curdle somewhat in the upper-middle range. But she exercises so much care in the way she makes her phrases and, as ever, she'll have you taking cover with those top notes. One or two of them sounded like separate events, but they were all there - with a will. In the climactic poker game of Act 2, you could be sure that she'd fling down her winning hand - 'Tre assi e un paio]' - with a withering volley straight from the chest. Take that.

Suddenly, it's no longer a man's world. In the circumstances, Justino Diaz's Jack Rance - a sort of Italian Maverick - was good value, and Nicola Martinucci a reliable but hardly subtle or charismatic Dick Johnson. But the ensemble get to be stars in this piece (a number of telling vignettes here, including Francis Egerton's Nick and David Ellis's Sonora), and the orchestra kicks up some dust under Richard Buckley.

Piero Faggioni's production - a Covent Garden favourite - is everything it needs to be. And those Ken Adam sets - straight off the Hollywood backlot. Minnie and Dick leave their horses off stage, but that's the only concession to the imagination.

In repertory at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 on 14, 16, 20, 23 July.

Box-office: 071-240 1911

(Photograph omitted)