Maryland Lyric Opera presented a powerful concert performance of Puccini’s seldom-heard “La Fanciulla del West,” or “The Girl of the Golden West,” Friday night at Strathmore.
There are plenty of reasons “Fanciulla” is a rarity. Its setting, in a rough-and-tumble mining camp during the 1849 California Gold Rush, where everybody sings Italian, is already a stretch. Minnie, the heroine, runs a saloon and gambling house and thinks nothing of pulling out a rifle and shooting a hole in the roof to get people’s attention. She’s also a virgin and a bit of a prude, but all the men in the camp are pantingly in love with her, especially the ruthless sheriff, Jack Rance. Enter a dandy from Sacramento, Dick Johnson, who is actually the evil bandit Ramerrez in disguise. He steals Minnie’s heart and, well, you can take it from there.
Puccini wrote “Fanciulla,” based on a play by the American David Belasco, for the Metropolitan Opera, where it opened in 1910 starring Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso. But after its New York premiere, the opera didn’t fare so well. There are several recordings, but it’s safe to say that “Fanciulla” is the least popular of Puccini’s mature operas.
However, to Maryland Lyric Opera’s great credit, it all came vividly to life Friday night. British soprano Susan Bullock brought warmth, compassion and vulnerability to the intrepid Minnie. Jonathan Burton’s generous, full-throated tenor could have been tailor-made for Dick Johnson. Baritone Mark Delavan’s always musical portrayal of Rance was lustful rage and vengeance personified. SeungHyeon Baek, in the critical role of Sonora, Joseph Michael Brent, Kenneth Kellogg and Catherine Martin were each convincing in supporting roles. The 80-piece orchestra, trusted with most of the opera’s heavy lifting, played its collective heart out under MDLO Music Director Louis Salemno, who conducted with authority and conviction.