One of the marks of the Spoleto Festival USA is its multiplicity of intimate events -- in accord with the genteel character of this city.

But every year there's always at least one big blast of grand opera. This year's choice was Puccini's impassioned and unjustly neglected "La Fanciulla del West" ("The Girl of the Golden West").

Spoleto turned it over to a star-studded movie-based team inexperienced in opera -- director Bruce Beresford ("Breaker Morant" and "Tender Mercies") and production designer Ken Adam (an Oscar-winner for "Barry Lyndon" and design whiz for several James Bond films). While they did justice to Puccini, the singers certainly did not.

The Italian master's saga of love, lust and betrayal at a Gold Rush mining camp is a stirring work, a sort of verismo "Gunsmoke" in which Miss Kitty is Minnie. And in place of the "Long Branch" is the "Polka" -- where in this production, if you looked carefully at the comings and goings from the rooms on the saloon set's mezzanine level, it was clear that more than just booze was for sale.

"Fanciulla" was the first opera ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera -- for Destinn, Caruso, Amato and Toscanini, no less. The opera is full of bold and effective new departures. There are, especially, its haunting passages for male chorus (the best singing in this production); there is the unprecedented strenuousness of the title role (a token of the "Turandot" that is to come); and there is the almost symphonic magic of the orchestra, so full of distinctive harmonies and textures (bewitchingly conducted here by Spoleto music director Christian Badea, who is a former Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor of the National Symphony).

"Fanciulla" is one of those lovely works just waiting for the right production and the right cast to come along and make it catch on.

Much was impressive about Spoleto's "Fanciulla," as seen Tuesday night at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, starting with the staging.

Adam's three enormous sets are stunning (to the tune of $400,000, according to a festival source). That first act saloon is so big it may look more like the "Polka Hilton" than just the "Polka," but it is handsome, appropriately moody, and gives Beresford plenty of room for his lively stage action.

The Act 2 set, Minnie's mountain cabin to which she and the pursued bandit Dick Johnson flee, is even more inspired. The curtain opens to the outside of the cabin in the middle of a raging snowstorm, only to have the outer wall, facing the audience, raise when the action begins, disclosing a warm, glowing interior in the middle of the storm.

The last act, at the mining derrick, is an arresting array of diagonals and curves -- quite properly in monumental proportions.

"Fanciulla" has credibility problems for an American audience, with all these classic American characters running around communicating in Italian (this really was the first spaghetti western). Yet, with the aid of Puccini's score, Beresford makes you believe in Minnie's love for Dick, and the resulting intensity of Sheriff Jack Rance's black jealousy.

If only the three leads could have sung as well as Beresford had them acting.

Some of the singing by Belgian soprano Anne-Marie Antoine as Minnie was truly bad, especially in the first act. She has a big voice, but she was doing almost nothing to color or focus it. Pitch was often approximate, to say the least. And she had one high note in the first act that was, just flat out, a scream. One got a fair notion of the emotion of Minnie's music, but less notion of its form.

Tenor Maurice Stern did better with Dick Johnson's music. His voice has the size; he has the physical stature, and those Caruso-designed highs were pretty secure. Stern's third act aria, in which he is saying his last words before his supposed lynching, was powerful, but not particularly beautiful.

Baritone Benito di Bella's Sheriff Rance was more musical. But his voice did not have the sonority to fill the large house with the proper Scarpia-like sound.

Lesser parts were often outstanding, particularly Jonathan Green's bartender, Gregory Stapp's Wells Fargo agent, Charles Damsel's Sonora and Stephen Dupont's camp-minstrel.

It is a mystery, however, how a company could come so close to a fine "Fanciulla" and not make it.