photograph by Robert Workman for ENO
It wasn’t the best introduction. I have an awkward feeling that I first saw La fanciulla del West with Dame Gwyneth Jones singing Minnie, sometime in the late 1980s, when she was approaching 50, and her vibrato was so widely spaced you could drive a London bus through the gaps. So it isn’t a piece I was disposed to regard with a great deal of seriousness. I couldn’t be happier than to say that Richard Jones’ cogent production for the English National Opera, with Susan Bullock, also a mature Minnie, has made me change my mind about the opera.
Of course Richard Jones is one of our great directors. I was not alone – but almost – in thinking his Ring cycle magnificent, for its well thought-out characterisations and for its wonderful attention to detail. These are exactly the gifts he’s brought to this most difficult-to-love Puccini piece. In particular, he’s blocked out the huge all-male choruses, so that they are always engaged in doing something, not standing there like singing robots; and he’s taken the (unusual) trouble to give each member of the chorus some character traits of his own. This is so rare it is almost revolutionary for an opera chorus: Richard Jones has treated them as individuals, not simply as a mass of voices. This means they are acting as well as singing, which gives an extra fillip to a production anyway heightened by fine singing and acting by the principals. If this is remembered by the ENO when the production is revived, this will be a bankable asset for the company, one that is more to the point and a clearer part of their mission than is the string of musicals being produced in response to the cuts to their government subsidy.
The difficulty with Puccini and his librettists’ treatment of David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, which was first given at the New York Met in 1910, is that it invites contemporary directors to see it as either through the eyes of Walt Disney or John Wayne – that is, either with post-Modernist irony or as a (nearly) serious Western shoot-out in Gold Rush California.
Jones has managed to tread gingerly between the two. His collaborator Miriam Buether’s sets are kissed with irony, such as the Ikea flat-pack that is Minnie’s cabin. Though it is in the middle of nowhere, it apparently is on the water mains and has electricity. And the Polka tavern pleasingly recalls every Western movie you’ve ever loved, complete with swinging saloon doors. Some of the sets have a roof, which means we can actually hear the surprisingly decent, unridiculous translation by Kelley Rourke.
All the boys love the chaste but matronly, Bible-bashing Minnie, who cares enough about them to teach the roughnecks to read, and Susan Bullock makes her falling for Dick Johnson, who is also the Mexican bandit Ramerrez (for the most part gorgeously sung by Peter Auty) completely plausible. Neither of them is a spring chicken, and their December/December match is pleasing and feels authentic. Of course, when you’ve got Graham Clark (the best Mime and one of the best Loges I’ve ever seen at Bayreuth) as Nick the bartender, we’re talking luxury casting, but this production has revised my opinion of the piece. Richard Jones has shown that it doesn’t have to be corny or trivial or sent up. Of course there has to be a little light irony, but the opera can be performed with sincerity. Susan Bullock and Peter Auty demonstrate that Puccini’s difficult music can be sung stylishly by grown-up singers and the Canadian conductor, Keri-Lynn Wilson, making her ENO debut, brought out the power as well as the lushness of Puccini’s score. To my surprise, I’d happily go again.