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Monday, June 14, 2010

Saturday Night: "La Fanciulla del West" at War Memorial Opera House

Posted By on Mon, Jun 14, 2010 at 8:35 AM

Deborah Voigt (as Minnie) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Deborah Voigt (as Minnie)
Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)
San Francisco Opera
June 12, 2010

Better than: The actual 49ers -- and I'm ready for some football.

Did I enjoy San Francisco Opera's production of La Fanciulla del West? I'm a coal miner's daughter, so the opening sight of guys with pickaxes suspended mid-air and hacking away at a rock wall (for gold, but still) triggered a frisson of pride. I firmly believe that more operatic heroines should announce their entrance with two blasts from a rifle. I am not above cheating at high-stakes poker, particularly if my fate is the high stake in question. And I like seeing the corporate ambitions of Wells-Fargo frustrated. Given all that, of course I enjoyed Fanciulla. But while performances that coincide with one's personal bent and biases may be entertaining, that alone does not make them great. What I saw at the War Memorial Opera House on Saturday was, in a word, transcendent.

That this 100-year-old opera isn't performed more often should be a hanging offense, particularly in these parts. It's set in California during the Gold Rush, and was adapted from a play by native San Franciscan David Belasco (though the libretto, by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, is in Italian). Local color abounds, including mild jibes at the manliness of S.F. dudes, and hearing singers put the required Italian flourish on such words as "Sacramento" and "Wells-Fargo" elicited giggles from the audience. Puccini's score is a delight; it's indebted as much to modern composers (think Debussy) as to past masters of the genre, and Andrew Lloyd Webber thought so highly of it that he allegedly ripped off one recurring melody for "Music of the Night." (Only the best will do for the man who brought you Cats.)

Again, though, local or personal affinities do not necessarily translate into a tremendous show, and that's why I'm pleased to present soprano Deborah Voigt, tenor Salvatore Licitra, and baritone Robert Frontali. These three -- as saloon owner/universal love interest Minnie, arch-bandit Ramerrez (disguised for a time as "Johnson from Sacramento"), and Sheriff Jack Rance -- sing and act these roles as though doing so is their Manifest Destiny. This is not wholly surprising, since Voigt is about as renowned as they come, and Licitra and Frontali have been racking up accolades from critics worldwide. What's remarkable here, in Voigt's role debut and Licitra's first appearance at SF Opera, is how fully they inhabit their characters and how natural their onstage chemistry appears. All three were in superb voice on Saturday.

Salvatore Licitra (as Dick Johnson) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Salvatore Licitra (as Dick Johnson)

Voigt had a blast (literally, given the rifle-assisted entrance) as Minnie, capitalizing on an unusually compelling female role. Her singing and persona exuded strength, passion, and tenderness as required, and her high notes were as bracing as the undiluted whiskey served at her saloon. It's odd, at first, to hear various suitors praise this dynamo's "innocence," but it becomes clear -- in the end, especially -- that this brand of innocence has little to do with dainty purity, and everything to do with the realities of self-preservation. Licitra's Ramerrez packs an equal vocal and emotional punch, particularly while justifying his crimes at his would-be hanging in the finale, and while coaxing Minnie's first kiss in her cabin in Act II. Frontali's Rance rather resembled a Wild West Scarpia -- Tosca's villain would approve both of his ruthless use of authority, and of his full, menacing baritone.

The large supporting cast included nary a weak link. Tenor Steven Cole as Nick the bartender and baritone Timothy Mix as the hulking miner Sonora gave particularly engaging performances. In her SF Opera debut -- and in Fanciulla's only other female role as Minnie's servant, Wowkle -- Adler Fellow Maya Lahyani began a tad timidly but displayed a vivid, rich mezzo-soprano as her role progressed. Capable singers in the remaining minor roles and the always-reliable SF Opera chorus infused the Sierra setting with lively and occasionally poignant humanity. Music director Nicola Luisotti's conducting brought to life every nuance of Puccini's score, while unobtrusively and expertly enhancing the vocalists' efforts.

Salvatore Licitra (as Dick Johnson) and Deborah Voigt (as Minnie) - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Salvatore Licitra (as Dick Johnson) and Deborah Voigt (as Minnie)

Along with the aforementioned rock wall, Maurizio Balò's other sets were a pleasure to behold -- particularly the Act II transformation of Minnie's cabin from civilized refuge to high-stakes poker crucible. Director Lorenzo Mariani's co-production with Italy's Fondazione Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Belgium's Ópera Royale de Wallonie is resolutely American in its aesthetic without slipping into yee-haw hokiness, though Minnie's gimmicky Act III horse (yes, a real horse) distracted from a tightly dramatic moment.

What did these elements add up to? A brief anecdote: I think audiences of all sorts give standing ovations far too frequently. Doesn't hopping to your feet for every third performer diminish the import of the act? During Saturday's curtain call, I planned to exhibit restraint, thinking I'd stand for Frontali and Licitra and Voigt -- all of whose performances earned it, even by my stingy accounting. But when the supporting crew of miner/singers shuffled out in their work clothes to take the first bows, I couldn't help myself. For once, I was one of the first to rise. I didn't even mind standing for that goddamn horse. Maybe it was the pervasive excellence of the entire production. Maybe it was because I'm a coal miner's daughter. Or maybe it's because when art is transcendent, one of the things it transcends is the boundary between personal predilections and critical appreciation.

Critic's Notebook

Random detail: The Crocs-and-resort-shirt aesthetic that afflicted part of Saturday's Faust crowd gave way to more debonair yet no less eclectic fashions: One couple consisted of a man in a traditional Scottish kilt, and a woman in a fuchsia feather hair ornament, black dress, red tights, and a clan-tartan-meets-Etsy wrap of muted plaid with appliquéd fabric-and-bead flowers. Her attire had an off-kilter charm (har har), but seriously, if all you have to wear is a bunny suit, just put it on and go see this opera (but either sit in the last row or pin down your ears during the performance).

Roberto Frontali (as Jack Rance) and Kevin Langan (as Ashby) - KEVIN BERNE
  • Kevin Berne
  • Roberto Frontali (as Jack Rance) and Kevin Langan (as Ashby)

Personal bias: Though it's inconsistent with local mores and with morality in general, I'm occasionally bummed about the contemporary West's dearth of hanging judges. So when a miner caught cheating at cards in Act I had his make-do scarlet letter fall off his chest -- a card that Rance had pinned on him and told him to remove on pain of death -- I was wholeheartedly hoping that the performers and stagehands would collaborate in an ad-libbed, on-the-spot hanging.

By the way: Remaining performances are June 15, 18, 24, 27, 29, and July 2 (the final performance is guest-conducted by Giuseppe Finzi). Tickets are $15-$310; call 864-3330 or visit for more information. Performances run approximately three hours, with two intermissions. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss


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