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Racette takes on Puccini’s Minnie at the Santa Fe Opera.
Ken Howard

Pistol-Packin’ Minnie

Hellooooo, Ragazzi!

July 6, 2016, 12:00 am

Quiz up: When’s the last time you heard “Oh, doo-da-day” sung in an opera house? How about last Friday night at the Crosby Theatre, when Puccini’s ode to America’s Western wilderness, La Fanciulla del West, opened the Santa Fe Opera’s 60th season. Want “Camptown Races”? You got it.

Given the super-colossal popularity of the composer’s big three—La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Tosca—this 1910 Gold Rush epic gets neglected by audiences nowadays despite its long-standing appeal for music cognoscenti. But as SFO’s brash and bountiful new production happily proves, it’s time to fall in love with Puccini all over again, complete with his doo-das and Italianate shout-outs for “Whiskey per tutti!”

Frankly and fortunately, Fanciulla’s libretto transcends its source, David Belasco’s 1905 blockbuster of a mellerdramer, The Girl of the Golden West.­ Somehow or other, Puccini found in that hackneyed farrago of racism, sentimentality and cardboard characterization the germ of a show that Catherine Clément laughably (I hope) dubbed “Mimì’s revenge.” Puccini’s “Girl,” Minnie, strong-willed and kind-hearted, vulnerable and pistol-packing, can teach the Psalms and still pull three aces and a pair from inside her bodice.

Think serious 19th-century opera heroines, and take your pick: Lucia, say, or Norma, or Violetta. Likewise, Puccini’s Mimì or Cio-Cio-San or Floria Tosca. Doornail dead, every one of them. Then there’s Minnie, vital, canny, a life force and (back to Clément) “made for tomorrow. Tomorrow she will set out, lit by the brilliance of her victory.” And so she does, after vanquishing that vile lecher, Jack Rance, in a crooked card game, rescuing her beloved bandido, Dick Johnson, from a mob of miners, and then heading off with the boyfriend for parts unknown.

Before anything else, Puccini and his librettists, Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, had to rescue Minnie from the purulent racism of Belasco’s play. Stage directions for Billy Jackrabbit describe him as “a full-blooded Indian, lazy, shifty and beady-eyed,” who scavenges for cigar butts and steals drinks in Minnie’s Polka Saloon. Wowkle, her servant, represents “the lax, un-corseted, voluptuous type of squaw . . . utterly unreliable and without any ideas of morality.” The bigoted miners of Cloudy Mountain, California, immigrants all, characterize Hispanics with an epithet that would have got a gringo salado like me murdered at recess on the playing fields of Tularosa.

That’s all been pretty much purged from Fanciulla. In its place, find a plethora of Puccini’s jolliest tunes (you will exit, whistling), embedded in his most gorgeous Technicolor orchestration to date (echoes of Debussy and R Strauss, maybe a few hints of Janáček to come). There’s a heap of virile choral writing for those unruly miners, and example after example of the composer’s love affair with the human voice.

From SFO’s last Fanciulla outings in ‘91 and ’95, we recall a terrific Mary Jane Johnson in the title role. Now it’s on to Patricia Racette for her fresh take on Minnie, tender and multidimensional, soft of heart and secure of voice. Although Racette’s still growing into the role, her top notes soar with warmth and luminosity, and as a consummate actress, she’ll have you forgetting you’re in an opera house.

That burly Welshman, Gwyn Hughes Jones, sings the unhappy highwayman-by-inheritance Ramerrez, aka Dick Johnson, who captures Minnie’s heart by comparing her face to an angel’s. Well, Jones’ voice is mighty angelic, too, especially in its easy stratospheric range. His powerful last-act aria, “Ch’ella mi creda,” describes, touchingly and sadly, a farewell to love and happiness.

Mark Delavan plays odd-man-out in Puccini’s love triangle, the randy sheriff Jack Rance. It’s pretty much a hiss-the-villain, Scarpia-in-a-Stetson role, but Delavan’s warm and nuanced baritone humanizes the part as best he can. Among the myriad lesser roles, note in particular Alan Glassman’s Nick the bartender, Craig Verm’s fine, sympathetic Sonora, Nicholas Davis as the minstrel Jake, and Raymond Aceto’s vigorous Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent.

Chorus master Susan Sheston’s all-male crowd of hyper-energetic miners hits the big time, vocally and gymnastically. And SFO’s heroic orchestra gets better every year, here led by Emmanuel Villaume, whose enthusiasm for the score can occasionally overwhelm his singers.

"Faniculla remains an opera that wears melancholy on its sleeve."

This production, a joint collaboration with the English National Opera, won an Olivier Award, Britain’s highest honor for operatic achievement, for director Richard Jones. It shows. Jones clearly loves this show, detail by penetrating detail, and the feeling’s mutual. Miriam Buether’s sets provide a surprising mix of Wild West with, yes, Ikea that forgoes the immensity of California’s landscape for a near-claustrophobic focus upon character.

Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes dress the miners with solid individuality, birthmarks and all. Lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and choreography by Lucy Burge never fail to satisfy.

Despite the effervescent energy of acts 1 and 3 in particular, Fanciulla remains an opera that wears melancholy on its sleeve, its main characters being immigrants and palpably homesick—strangers in a strange land. As here, the American dream has been the immigrant’s dream, fulfilled or not. There’s a sad, omnipresent two-word refrain in Fanciulla, climaxing in the opera’s final notes: “Mai più” (“Never more”).

In the opera’s last measures, Minnie and Dick Johnson bid a regretful addio to the Golden West, perhaps aware that “the only true paradise,” in Proust’s phrase, “is the paradise lost.”

La Fanciulla del West:
8:30 pm Wed. July 6 and Sat. July 9. $35-$243.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive


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