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Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center New York. At left is Jonathan Burton as Dick Johnson and Kristin Sampson as Minne.

Opera Talk – The New York City Opera Performs a Puccini Best

By Dr. John L. DiGaetani

The New York City Opera went bankrupt about five years ago, but it is being revived, thanks to Michael Capasso, much to the delight of New York’s opera fans.  The company is now performing in the Rose Theater, a part of Lincoln Center in the Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle.

In earlier this month, the resurrected company put on a very credible performance of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” one of his lesser-known, but a wonderful opera with a happy ending. This work, in fact, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and was first performed in New York City in 1910 and became the hit of the season. Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn were the lovers and Pasquale Amato was the sheriff in the original cast. They received rave reviews and repeated ovations.

This current production by the City Opera was staged by Ivan Stefanutti, a very good Italian opera director, who, although he had a limited budget, staged a lively production with wonderful projections of the California Sierra Mountains and forest scenery, which Puccini wanted to appear on stage. James Meena conducted a moving performance, though with a reduced orchestra. Meena emphasized the subtle orchestration in Puccini’s score to grand effect.

The heroine, Minne, was sung by Kristin Sampson who has a dramatic soprano voice. She was always audible and could fill the theater with her lovely soprano sound, though I wish she had sung more softly in some of the more intimate part of the score; for example, when Minnie was falling in love with Dick Johnson. Jonathan Burton, who sang Johnson, had a large tenor voice with bright, clear, secure top notes which got an ovation from the audience.

The villain, Sheriff Jack Rance, was sung forcefully by Kevin Short, who captured both the loneliness and the menace of this character. The male chorus sounded impressive as the miners. These men were looking for gold during the California Gold Rush but found mostly loneliness, certainly a major theme in this opera. By the end, Minnie saves Dick Johnson, but they leave California with its cursed gold.

There is a lot of comedy in this opera as well. In addition to its happy ending, some of the smaller roles provide comic relief. Alexander Birch Elliot made Sonora an interesting character; Michael Boley’s Nick was forceful and Christopher Job was moving as Ashby.

The opera is in some ways a parody of Wagner’s Ring cycle, also about the power of gold and its catastrophic effects on the many characters in that work. But for opera lovers, it is wonderful to have the New York City Opera back in operation, thanks to Michael Capasso.