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La Fanciulla del West—West End Girl

Giacomo Puccini
OperaUpClose
Kings Head Theatre

La Fanciulla del West—West End Girl
La Fanciulla del West—West End Girl

Minnie’s dilapidated café is filled with eastern Europeans, alcohol and undertones of violence—perfectly operatic. OperaUpClose has done it again with their updated La Fanciulla del West—now West End Girl. The new libretto (Robert Chevara and Kfir Yefet) is gritty, fresh and extremely colourful. Added layers of Eastern European phrases and accents complete the concept.

Minnie’s internet café also serves as a school where she educates her boys: Jack Rock, Nik, Sonora and Yuri. When not learning to be true English citizens, the boys lust over Minnie, fight and play poker. Minnie (Demelza Stafford) is overjoyed when Vik Johnson (Ben Thappa) arrives. He made her pulse race once before in a brief encounter on the Circle Line, and she’s quickly won over to invite him back to her flat.

Act two and the café is transformed into a poky tower block flat—tiny bunk-bed, wardrobe and flea market dressing table. Throughout West End Girl, director Chevara brilliantly balances hilarious moments and true desperate passion to make your spine tingle. When Johnson realises he’s sleeping in the other bunk, his reaction makes us giggle, whereas Minnie’s cries at the discovery of Johnson’s true identity are truly heart-wrenching.

Unfortunately, not all the elements are as consistently brilliant as the new concept and libretto. The show opens fantastically, with the four workers Jack Rock (Tom Stoddart), Nik (Edmund Hastings), Sonora (Simon Meadows) and Yuri (Matthew Stiff) perfectly cast. Then enters Minnie (Stafford) who has us in the palm of her hand dramatically but is vocally less appealing, struggling to pitch accurately. Ben Thappa (Johnson) doesn’t improve things, with a distinct lack of phrasing despite Puccini’s lyrical lines and acting a little hit and miss.

In comparison, Tom Stoddart (Jack Rock) is utterly terrifying—truly believable as a slimy bossman with a rich vocal tone. His steel-edged expression never falters, and with each desperate play for Minnie you see more depths of his intimidating persona. Edmund Hastings is also a young singer to watch with a beautiful, unforced tenor voice and fantastic acting.

The proximity to the action means when the singers choose to project, you can feel their pain and anguish searing straight through you. The audience held their breath as Johnson was dragged out to die, hands bound, head covered. This level of intimacy demands that you are dragged right into the action too—OperaUpClose certainly lives up to its name. Their aim is genre accessibility, and, judging by the audience demographic, they’re certainly heading in the right direction.

With far more performances jammed in than the Royal Opera House, the lead roles are double-cast for West End Girl. This gives hope that on another night perhaps the roles of Johnson and Minnie could be more evenly matched in this impressive cast. Whatever you do, don’t miss the any of the others though or you’ll pass up on truly outstanding performances, in what is otherwise an outstanding new opera.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis