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New York City Opera Presents Puccini's "La fanciulla del West" at Rose Theater

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La fanciulla del West
By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Guelfo Civinini
Based on the play:
“The Girl of the Golden West”
By David Belasco

New York City Opera
Rose Theater
Frederick P. Rose Hall

Conductor, James Meena
Stage Director; Set, Projection, Costumes:
Ivan Stefanutti
Lighting & Projection Design: Michael Baumgarten
Fight Director: Robert Westley

Kristin Sampson, Minnie
Jonathan Burton, Dick Johnson
Kevin Short, Jack Rance
Alexander Birch Elliott, Sonora
Michael Boley, Nick
Christopher Job, Ashby
Kenneth Overton, Jake Wallace
New York City Opera Ensemble
as Joe, Trin, Harry, Bello, Sid, Happy,
Jim Larkens, Billy Jackrabbit, Wowkle,
José Castro, Postiglione

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 8, 2017

This was a thrilling evening, revisiting New York City Opera after several years, in what is now the second season of its reincarnation. I had never before seen La fanciulla del West, Puccini’s Italian opera about romance and danger in America’s 1840’s California gold rush. The three-act dramatic scenes take place in the Polka Saloon, in the Sierra Mountains cabin of Minnie, the saloon’s proprietor, and deep in the Redwood Forest. Puccini’s score is brisk, expansive, and evocative of Broadway (Lloyd Webber) and impressionism (Debussy). James Meena, General Director and Principal Conductor of Opera Carolina, which has collaborated on this dynamic production, led the orchestra and chorus in vibrant musicality and sumptuous harmonies. Michael Capasso, City Opera’s General Director, warmly greeted the Rose Theater audience and introduced this rarely experienced opera. The opera, with a libretto by Guelfo Civinini, is based on David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West (which I would now love to see). The lead cast, Kristin Sampson as Minnie, Jonathan Burton as the wanted bandit, Ramerrez, who poses as Minnie’s suitor, Dick Johnson, and Kevin Short, as the local sheriff, Jack Rance, who vies for Minnie’s hand in marriage, was entertaining and enticing.

This opera generously features its male choral ensemble as the homesick miners (Minnie is the sole female in the opera, other than Wowkle, her house servant), bandits, bartender, minstrel, and posse. The muscular, inebriated toasts, occasional fist fights, and choreographed mayhem all come across with buoyant conviviality. Also eying Minnie’s curves is a miner, Sonora (Alexander Birch Elliott), who sparks a brawl with Rance, before Minnie arrives with her shotgun and falling curls. Sid (Peter Kendall Clark), who is caught cheating in the nightly card game, almost gets lynched by his fellow miners, but Minnie’s endearing and energized manner saves the cheater, as drinks are poured. Ramerrez arrives as Dick Johnson, with whom Minnie had had a brief fling, and their rapturous dance draws Rance’s ire. A subplot involves Castro (Dominic Inferrera), one of Ramerrez’ Mexican gang members, who falsely offers to help Rance and the miners find their wanted man. Johnson and Castro’s gang had planned to rob the saloon of its barrel of stashed gold, but Ramerrez, aka Johnson, is weakening with lust for Minnie. Act II introduces Minnie’s servant, American Indian Wowkle (Hyona Kim) and her lover Billy Jackrabbit (SeungHyeon Baek) and baby. Finally alone, Minnie and Johnson kiss, but that’s the extent of the night’s intimacy, as Minnie is jealous Johnson’s past with a colorful lady named Nina. The plot follows Johnson’s late night, gunshot injury outside the cabin and a poker game between Rance and Minnie, where Minnie’s wiliness and survival instinct save Johnson’s life and her future with her desired lover, over the aggressive sheriff. Act III resolves the conflicts with romantic closure.

Ms. Sampson’s soprano was strong and heartfelt, with dramatic urgency and clear, uncluttered phrasing. I would have preferred more nuance and lushness, now and then, but the role is one of a brave and boisterous saloonkeeper, one who nurtures miners with whiskey, as they face endless lonely nights and physically challenging days. The occasional sharpness in her highest ranges might be explained as expansion of bravura characterization. Mr. Burton’s eloquent tenor was magnetic and mesmerizing, as was Mr. Short’s bass-baritone. Both performers riveted the audience in their spotlighted scenes. And, the onstage chemistry of Ms. Sampson and Mr. Burton was persuasive. As Ashby, the Wells Fargo head of the sheriff’s posse, Christopher Job’s eloquent bass-baritone was striking. Mr. Elliott’s baritone, as Sonora, added tone and texture, as well. Michael Boley’s tenor, as Nick, the saloon’s bartender, and Kenneth Overton’s baritone, as Jake Wallace, a traveling minstrel, were notably rich and refined. Ivan Stefanutti’s direction, sets, projections, and costumes (quite a task for one) were efficient to a fault. I would have liked to see Ms. Sampson in some colorful ruffles and such, as her denim culottes, fringed jacket, and plaid shirt, then pallid, cotton night clothes did not showcase the star of the show. The stark tables, chairs, stairway, saddle, pillows, and blankets, as well, were less than eye-catching. But, the forestial, mountainous projections, as backdrops, were superb. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and projection design kept scenes appropriately luminous or smoky. Robert Westley, in fight direction, certainly had his hands full in rehearsals. The results were compelling. Also involved in this production were Teatro de Giglio in Lucca, Italy, and Teatro Lirico in Cagliari, Sardinia. I look forward, very much, to New York City Opera’s remaining productions for the 2017-2018 season.

Christopher Job, Kristin Sampson, and Cast
of New York City Opera's Production of
Puccini's La fanciulla del West
Courtesy of Sarah Shatz

Jonathan Burton and Kristin Sampson
of New York City Opera's Production of
Puccini's La fanciulla del West
Courtesy of Sarah Shatz

Kevin Short and Kristin Sampson
of New York City Opera's Production of
Puccini's La fanciulla del West
Courtesy of Sarah Shatz

Jonathan Burton and Cast
of New York City Opera's Production of
Puccini's La fanciulla del West

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at