'Fanciulla' rides into 'Frisco 

Hans Christian Andersen was convinced he will be remembered as a playwright. Giacomo Puccini – of “La Boheme,” “Tosca,” “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly” fame – believed “The Girl of the Golden West” was his best opera.

As poet Robert Burns wrote, “O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.”

“La Fanciulla del West,” which opened in a new production Wednesday in the War Memorial, is a silly melodrama with bombastic music. It's also great fun.

San Francisco Opera is advertising “Fanciulla” as “the original spaghetti Western about a crafty criminal, a suspicious sheriff, a frontier woman with a tender heart who knows how to shoot a gun.”

As for the music, it's Puccini, who sweeps listeners away even at his most saccharine any time – or, most of the time.

The main sweeper at the premiere was Music Director Nicola Luisotti, a certified Italian, a great Puccini fiend and a conductor who gets and sustains a relentless storm from the orchestra.

Lorenzo Mariani's direction, on Maurizio Balo's “I can build higher mountains than the Sierra” sets, peaks with crowd scenes that are dizzily hyperactive.

Piling excess on excess at the very beginning, Mariani has gold miners suspended on Balo's mountain, using axes in vertical gold-digging that looks highly problematic.

The mountaineers exit, a complicated saloon set is moved in place, and Ian Robertson's lusty men's chorus permeates the stage. Was the spelunking during the overture really necessary other than to show off some brave extras? Maybe not.

The parting of those really big mountains several times is another puzzle. One would, especially in this region, prefer the Sierra not moving about excessively.

The lead roles are sung by singers with gorgeous voices and occasional problems.

As Minnie, Deborah Voigt gives a winning performance singing, acting, and horse-riding, but high notes and forte passages are mostly "off."

Salvatore Licitra's Dick Johnson offers some beautiful singing, with a few minor mishaps in high notes.

Roberto Frontali's Jack Rance and Kevin Langan's Wells Fargo Agent Ashby are solid.

The debuting Timothy Mix's Sonora, and the Merola/Adler singers are splendid, especially Maya Lahyani's Wowkle, David Lomeli's Harry, and Austin Kness' Handsome.

With many Gold Rush, Sacramento and San Francisco references, it's curious that 31 years have passed since the last local production of "Fanciulla" – and that I still remember Placido Domingo's Dick Johnson and, less, Carol Neblett's Minnie.

Minnie's strange, cute and well-behaved horse is a Haflinger named Whiz Kid.

 

OPERA REVIEW
Girl of the Golden West

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. June 12, 15, 18 and July 2; 7:30 p.m. June 24, 29; 2 p.m. June 27
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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