La Fanciulla del West

Giacomo Puccini
Grange Park Opera
The Grange

La Fanciulla del West Credit: Robert Workman
La Fanciulla del West Credit: Robert Workman

From the opening chords, it was clear La fanciulla del West was set to be a musical feast. We gorged on Puccini’s powerful orchestration, which the Bournemouth Symphony orchestra delivered arrestingly under Stephen Barlow’s baton.

The huge cast (18 named roles) and large orchestra means La fanciulla del West is one of Puccini’s less often performed operas. This show was bravely undertaken by Grange Park in 2008 and this revival hasn’t dimmed after an 8-year gap.

This is the much-advertised final season at the Grange in Hampshire, after which Grange Park Opera will be relocating to their "Theatre in the Woods" in Surrey. You might think that a quintessentially English picnic crowd, dining in the shade of a Grecian-inspired building before watching Puccini’s Spaghetti Western, could be a tad confusing. Luckily, the magic of theatre always has the potential to transport us from the surroundings, but these are environs that no-one wants to block out.

La fanciulla del West demands a large male ensemble, led by Jack Rance (Stephen Gadd) as the Sheriff and admirer of Minnie (Claire Rutter). Act 1 takes place in the Polka Bar, row after row of whisky bottles clad the attractive American saloon bar (designer Francis O'Connor), with clever lighting effects (David Plater). The whole crowd adores Minnie and when she emerges in the midst of their gambling, brawling and drinking everyone regains their manners.

Director Stephen Medcalf places the action in the traditional setting, in the midst of the 1840s Gold Rush. His attention to characterisation and detailed ensemble work keeps the energy high from start to finish, and this opera is a great vehicle for displaying the wealth of young British opera talent working at Grange Park this summer.

Soon Ramerrez, a bandit calling himself Mr Johnson (Lorenzo Decaro), appears in Minnie’s bar and the tangled romance commences. Decaro and Rutter both take a while to warm into the role vocally, but their powerful voices match well and can certainly carry Puccini’s soaring lines. Stephen Gadd (Rance) shines in this show; his excellent vocal colouring captures the brooding, strong willed Sheriff. Nick the bartender (Alberto Sousa) and Sonora (Michel de Souza) are young stars to watch out for in the future.

After the interval, we are moved to Minnie’s snow-swept cabin in the woods, the intimate space working well to highlight the simpleness of her everyday life. Rutter captures well the strong bar owner who takes no nonsense and the softer nervous girl on the edge of a budding romance.

The Cabin disappears and we are left on the mountainside criss-crossed by railway lines for the final chase of Ramerrez. When Minnie finally melts the hearts of the angry miners and saves her lover, they ride off into a clumsily appearing sunset. Sadly, this mars the final moments of an otherwise tastefully and cleverly designed show.

Throughout the evening, the ensemble excel, ensuring Puccini’s often chopping and changing score keeps momentum. In this operatic feast, the ensemble work proves to be the decadent desert. A wonderful night of entertainment.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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