Maryland Lyric Opera’s La Fanciulla del West: MDLO Proves Me Wrong

Frankly, I thought that the Maryland Lyric Opera, a relatively new, though resurgent, small opera company, might be overly ambitious in beginning their season performing a concert version of La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West; composer Giacomo and librettists Guello Civinini and Carlo Zangarini).  This is one of Puccini’s less popular operas that still gets performed, and MDLO planned to give it a full orchestra and chorus for an opera that already has a large number of singing parts, and then perform it in the concert hall at Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda which seats almost two thousand attendees.  That’s a big treatment for an opera that might not draw that well. I should have more faith. Kudos to the creative team and staff; I’m happy to report that MDLO took a swing and hit one out of the park.  I thought the turn-out was good, though there were too many empty seats.  For this production, MDLO deserved a packed house.  I attended both Friday (Sept 14) and Saturday (Sept 15) performances.

 Opening night of  La Fanicula del West  begins. Photo by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Opening night of La Fanicula del West begins. Photo by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Ok, first off I have to eat my words.  I have previously referred to Fanciulla as a merely good Puccini opera, that happens to have a great theme – the ability of love to enable redemption.  I felt this opera lacked the number of stand-out arias so characteristic of Puccini’s more popular operas, necessary to push it into the great category.  MDLO has changed my mind.  La Fanciulla del West is a great Puccini opera.  From the opening refrain, the MDLO orchestra, under MDLO Conductor and Music Director Louis Salemno, knocked me back in my seat.  The recurring musical themes coupled to the complex and intricate orchestration brought forth by the eighty-piece orchestra were worthy of a symphony.  I had not gotten this effect from the orchestras in the fully-staged versions I have seen previously. Those orchestras were smaller and placed in the pit (concert versions typically have the orchestra on stage with the singers), and there was competition for my attention between the sound and the visual unfolding of the drama in fully-staged versions.  Indeed, I feel like I heard this music for the first time.  But that was not all; the stage not only held a full orchestra, it also had a 37-member male chorus behind the orchestra and a cast of 17 singers rotating up front.  More on that later, but it was one of those experiences you don’t forget.

Susan Bullock as Minnie; Mark Delavan as Rance and Jonathan Burton as Johnson. Photos by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

So that you know who’s who in this story, here is my synopsis of the plot, largely what I wrote for my blog report on MDLO’s new season: Imagine a saloon in a tiny mining town during the California gold rush.  Good-hearted and virtuous Minnie, who has never been kissed, runs the saloon and is the surrogate mother/fantasy girlfriend for a group of miners.  Local sheriff Jack Rance wants her for himself and is pressuring her to give in; she is having none of it.  Bandit and gang leader Ramirez sneaks into town using Dick Johnson as an alias, planning to check out the saloon for a planned robbery, while his gang awaits him on the outskirts of town.  Instead, Dick falls for Minnie and she for him.  There are chases and a high stakes card game, where virtuous Minnie cheats to secure her love.  The lasso around Dick’s heart is eventually joined by a noose around his neck as the dramatic conclusion unfolds.  

left: at center stage, SeungHueon Baek as Sonora, Mark Delavan as Rance and Jonathan Burton as Johnson; right: the miner crew to stage right, Jesus Daniel Hernandez as Harry, Mauricio Miranda as Joe, Yazid Gray as Bello, Tim Augustin as Trin, and Hunter Enoch as Happy. Photos by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

After my son heard my praise for Friday night’s show, he wanted to attend; so, I went with him to see Saturday night’s performance as well.  The singers for the lead roles were different, so it gave me an opportunity to see how the different performers affected my view of the opera.  Among the minor roles, Joseph Michael Brent as Nick, Kenneth Kellogg as Ashby, SeungHueon Baek as Sonora, and Catherine Martin as Wowkle all impressed; interestingly I thought Baek added a measure of soulfulness on the second night that was very appealing.  Another standout for me was the group of miners standing together (Jesus Daniel Hernandez, Mauricio Miranda, Yazid Gray, Tim Augustin, and Hunter Enoch) and often singing together with a remarkably appealing tone.  All of the cast sang well, individually in character and as a group, as did the chorus.  The chorus sounded beautiful; kudos to Chorus Master Steven Gathman.  When the entire ensemble sang together the effect was emotionally powerful.

left: Yi Li as Johnson and Jill Gardner as Minnie; photo by Sam Trotman. right: standing - Alexsey Bogdanov as Rance and Jill Gardner as Minnie; seated - Joseph Michael Brent as Nick and Yi Li as Johnson; photo by Dhanesh Mahtani. All photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

The differences in the Friday and Saturday night performances arose mainly from what the singers in the lead roles brought to the performance (respectively, sopranos Susan Bullock and Jill Gardner as Minnie; baritones Mark Delavan and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sheriff Rance; and tenors Jonathan Burton and Yi Li as Dick Johnson).  Ms. Bullock has a lovely voice with a soft edge that fits Minnie well; she sang the aria ending her card game with Rance with such conviction and vocal power that she brought down the house.  I personally liked Ms. Gardner’s voice best, and she sang with remarkable power, though she didn’t convey to me the pathos/involvement that I felt from her when I saw her sing Minnie in Virginia Opera’s production.  Perhaps my perception was influenced by seeing her in two stunning evening dresses instead of saloon/miner garb.  Baritone Mark Delavan seemed a natural as Rance.  While I loved Aleksey Bogdanov’s voice and singing, his voice seemed to me a little too dark, more bass like, to play Rance, and motivated too much by power lust, while Mr. Delevan managed to imply at least some carnal desire.  Tenors Jonathan Burton and Yi Li both sang well and sounded great. However, I liked that Mr. Burton managed to sing more to Minnie, while Mr. Li sang more to the audience, which was less convincing.  The Friday night cast seemed the most cohesive and told the story the most convincingly in my opinion.  My son thought the Saturday night group told the story quite well and was also enamored of the singing and playing of the orchestra.  Both performances got enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovations at the end; I will claim that Friday’s was more genuinely enthusiastic.

 Curtain call for Saturday night’s performance. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Curtain call for Saturday night’s performance. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

One of the unfortunate aspects of a live performance is that once it’s over, it’s over.  I can tell you about it, but you can’t experience it.  And recordings if they exist just don’t quite sound the same or carry the same experience.  A book can be passed around and be the same for everyone, but for a live opera performance, you gotta be there!  The Maryland Lyric Opera has several more events this season (see my preview) and based on their stunning production of La Fanciulla del West, I suggest you be there.

The Fan Experience: This was not only my first concert version of Fanciulla, it was also my first trip to the Strathmore Music Center.  Strathmore is worth both seeing and hearing.  Plus, I really appreciated the free, easy access parking adjacent to the concert hall.  I sat in front orchestra on Friday and in the first tier on Saturday.  The sound was excellent in both locations, though the stereophonic effect is stronger in the front orchestra.  I did come away wondering if the sound of the music carries a tad better than operatic voices in the hall, but that could just reflect the individual singer’s technique.  Ms. Gardner’s voice certainly arrived with authority in the first tier.

MDLO’s next production will be October 19, 20 - “MDLO Young Artists Institute - An Evening of Mozart, German Masters”, the date for which was scheduled after my season preview.