This past Sunday, Opera Carolina made a significant leap forward in the southeastern operatic scene by unveiling its staging Puccini’s unjustly neglected masterpiece, La Fanciulla del West. While the opera has enjoyed a healthy amount of attention at the major operatic hubs periodically, it has been considered a high gamble for regional companies, which routinely overlook it in favor of its assumingly less chancier siblings (Tosca, La Boheme and Madama Butterfly). While its very staging makes Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla an event not to be missed, the company deserves great credit for bringing the opera to Charlotte through a production of great beauty which also marks the company’s first international collaboration. Following these performances, it will travel to the New York City Opera and then cross the Atlantic, where it will grace five Italian theaters including the Teatro di Giglio, and the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari. In keeping with this Italo-American spirit, the opera’s cast as well as the creative team is comprised exclusively of American and Italian born talent, lending the proceedings an additional degree of authenticity.
Under the hands of Italian director and designer Ivan Stefanutti, the production values followed suit. The sets comprising the Polka saloon, as well as Minnie’s cabin and the scaffolding that dominates the third act were sparse but traditional in design. Video projections made possible by Michael Baumgarten added a modern touch , and though they tended to wear out their welcome when they hammered their point excessively, Mr. Stefanutti evoked a poetic note whenever the innovation fulfilled a naturalistic task. His counterpart in the pit, maestro James Meena, led the forces of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra with his customary (and in this case appropriate) bombastic excitement, and though some instances of musical awkwardness were detected throughout the show, what follows may indicate that the causes of said casual disconnect may have been more specific than general.
Central to this run of performances of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is the presence of tenor Marcello Giordani making his Opera Carolina debut in the role of Dick Johnson. The tenor has been a mainstay of the international operatic circuit for over two decades, and when the Metropolitan Opera chose to celebrate the centennial of the premiere of Fanciulla in 2010, they entrusted the role of the heroic bandit to him. For those who missed that event, these performances offer the unique opportunity to experience a celebrated artist in one of his signature impersonations. From the outset, Mr. Giordani did not disappoint. The condition of his voice remains remarkably similar when compared to our initial hearing of it in 2002 (in Bellini’s Il Pirata). The voice is clear and silver colored, secure from the middle to the upper range. The lower notes significantly less so. At the top of the staff, he can call upon a trumpety squillo to dominate the ensemble and orchestral forces. His singing is generally unforced and gallant, though many have refused his entrance into the operatic pantheon by pointing out a certain monochromatic approach. While this rings true to our ears as well, his assumptions are most certainly idiomatic, and for Charlotte, his Dick Johnson was no exception. His unfussed entrance provided a stark contrast to the art of his leading lady, and settled into his voice through the conversational bits afforded him by Puccini before the massive duet that closes the act. When the aforementioned duet arrived (Signor Johnson, siete rimaste indietro), he blended beautifully with the forces in the pit, and phrased the line of the famous “Quello che voi tacete” with great aplomb. Throughout, he avoided a hyper romantic approach while leaning instead towards restrained suavity, always allowing the variety of his phrasing to do the heavy lifting. For the second act, he permitted himself to let things rip with greater abandon only when it counted. “Or son sei messi” was a lesson in story telling through song, and the one instance when his singing seemed to tightened a bit as he pressed towards the climax. As we have witnessed in our past experience of his art, just as the voice threatened to desert Mr. Giordani, he snatched it back somehow to smite the audience with a stentorian B flat. His take on the opera’s well known aria, “Ch’ella mi creda” was solidly realized both as a musical number and as heartfelt supplication, a golden seal on a well-rounded and intelligent characterization. The selfie generation will be glad to know that Mr. Giordani embodied the repentant bandit convincingly through his sensible acting, and has a solid stage presence. More importantly for the business at hand, this music runs through Mr. Giordani’s blood, and Opera Carolina should feel proud to add his august name to its roster.
Mr. Giordani was well paired against baritone Aleksey Bogdanov’s Jack Rance. A tall, handsome man, Mr. Bodganov’s Sheriff was appropriately masculine and multi-dimensional and the voice was not far behind. His baritone is dark toned and large, with a swaggery grit that allowed the singer to cut through the orchestral fabric with apparent ease. He’s also an expressive artist, and took advantage of Rance’s brief confession (Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito) to impart in the audience the weight of his plight by singing imbued with a sense of arid longing which set up his reprehensible actions in the second act. In this era where the mere mention of sexual assault can rattle the most sensible online dialogue, that he inspired a certain degree of compassion was admirable. His reactions to Johnson’s entrance were irritated and delightfully comic, and he was terrifyingly single tracked during the poker card scene that closes the opera’s second act. Like Mr. Giordani, he is sensitive to the phrasing of the Italian language, and also provided a sort of stylistic litmus test whenever he matched forces with his leading lady. Onstage, he is a convincing actor, and his defeat at the opera’s end showed him a broken man. We would not be surprised if his silent pantomime stole the attention of many in the audience as the rest of the cast sang the curtain down. Those familiar with this blog will remember our entry of Mr. Bodganov’s Escamillo in the Atlanta Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen some seasons back. While it was a well realized and serviceable interpretation. Back then we were pleased by his work but not terribly impressed. It would seem that Puccini’s language seems to better make use of his art, and your friends at newoutpost are most definitely reassessing his talents.
The success of any performance of Fanciulla rests heavily on the shoulders of the lead protagonist, and here the casting of Kristin Sampson as Minnie proved to be the production’s main caveat. The demands of the score outmatched the soprano’s vocal pedigree from her first entrance onwards, and throughout the event she found herself mismanaging her resources against the role’s titanic vocal demands. The lengthy role allowed for careful inspection of her instrument, which is a bright edged lyric soprano of a good size, which she focused with surprising skill (and visible effort) to cut through the orchestral fabric when needed. There are hints in the timbre of a once lovely voice which has been put through the paces of a very distressing list of repertoire choices (mostly verismo heroines), which may have resulted in the dryness heard in the bridge that separates the upper and middle tessituras. On her side of things, she furthered her cause by generously digging into the chest register when required, and though the voice is squarely lyric, her top is steely and remarkably steady. These qualities will surely keep these dramatic soprano assignments coming her way, and the stress of them may likely widen the break in the passagio until the voice becomes sadly unresponsive. These are serious limitations which many celebrated verismo interpreters have had to content with (Magda Olivero, Mafalda Favero and Renata Scotto come to mind), but a savvy artist will find a way to employ them to her advantage, earning both our acceptance and admiration. Sadly, though she managed to accomplish her role quite valiantly, and Ms. Sampson consistently painted herself into a vocal corner where all focus was reserved to match the role’s fiendish tessitura, leaving no room for the joy and leisure of the softer, more likable qualities of Puccini’s fascinatingly complex heroine which are the hallmarks of the first act.
Not that Ms. Sampson did not project these qualities through her acting when the opportunity afforded her (she emoted well enough), but when added to the matter of her diction, the list of demerits began to add up. All operatic music is shaped by the text, and this applies most to the music of Puccini and the Italian verismo composers. The rise and fall of the language helps shape the melodies sung into something beautiful and poetic, it informs the melodic line and the singer’s interpretation. The Italians sum in all up by calling it “personalita”. Opera is an international sport, and foreign singers can have an accent, or plain bad Italian, and depending on the skill used to wield it within the boundaries of song, they will be forgiven. One thing that cannot be overlooked, however, is the brand of clumsily mechanical diction which Ms. Sampson displayed throughout the entire performance, tearing apart the shape of much of her more endearing music in the first act (the bible lesson scene as well as her exchanges with both Rance and Johnson) which caused a chasm not only between herself and the other singers onstage, but also with the orchestra, which seemed to be emoting a different musical language altogether.
Curiously, the second act, with its merciless demands on the upper range, somehow found her more relaxed as the focus became one of joyless bombastic survival, and it stretched Ms. Sampson’s voice at times well past its boundaries. When it all became too much to bear, she reverted to shouts, snarls, and chest so appreciated by those into that sort of thing (hand raised). Her overtly anxious Minnie wrapped up the evening in a curious manner, somehow inspiring the miners unwavering loyalty in the final act after having established so little of it in the first, and that is ultimately the main drawback we found in Ms. Sampson. Technical difficulties in Minnie are to be expected, but a conscientious artist must always interpret and express through singing and the parola scenica. One can only wish her the greatest of luck as the production crosses the Atlantic.
The list of secondary characters, too lengthy to assess completely, contained its superlatives. Representing the miners, the Jake Wallace of baritone Jeff McEvoy established a strong musical tone as he led the men of the Opera Carolina Chorus in the touching “Che faranno i vecchi miei la lontano”. Protecting the interests of the Wells Fargo company, the Ashby of baritone Jason McKinney earned the attention for his commanding stage presence and somewhat stringent musical method. For her part, mezzo soprano Anna Harreveld’s Wowkle was steady and characterful. The remaining miners did well by their parts and comprised a delightfully motley crew.
There are two remaining performances left of Opera Carolina’s production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. For ticket information, please visit the company’s website at www.operacarolina.org