Film & TV

Film Review: La Scala: La Fanciulla del West

Puccini’s spaghetti western opera is based on the play The GIrl of the Golden West and is one he considered to be his finest.

This film presentation by Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas of La Scala’s new production of La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) composed by Giacomo Puccini was captured live from Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 10 May 2016. It runs for a little over two and a half hours without an intermission. It is sung in Italian with English subtitles.

La Fanciulla del West is set in the goldfields of California in the 1850s. In three acts, it is based on the play The Girl of the Golden West by the American playwright David Belasco, who also penned the play that led to Madama Butterfly, one of Puccini’s best loved operas. La Fanciulla del West is not blessed with memorable lyrical passages and arias as other Puccini operas, but it is probably more complete and musically coherent.

Interestingly, La Fanciulla del West does have a recurring musical theme that underpins a number of significant moments between the opera’s heroine and anti-hero that is strongly reminiscent of the aria Music of the Night from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera! The similarity led to a court case between the estate of Puccini and Lloyd Webber with the matter being settled out of court and forever secret!

The heroine of La Fanciulla del West is Minnie, a saloon owner who is as handy with a gun as she is with a whisky bottle and a shot glass. She is unattached and although she has never known the love of a man, she, in effect, plays surrogate mother to the horde of gold prospectors who haunt her bar. Indeed she ‘entertains’ them by reading lessons from the Bible and causes them to be perpetually homesick and missing their mothers! (Hey, its grand opera. Why can’t burley miners be a bit sooky as well!).

Jack Rance, the local sheriff, is very keen on Minnie and makes his intentions clear, but he is thwarted by a stranger who comes to town and also makes a play for her affections. It turns out that the stranger, Dick Johnson, alias Ramerrez, is a wanted bandit. They are clearly attracted to each other and Minnie pleads for his life to be spared after the law catches up with him and he is about to be strung up for his crimes.

Barbara Haveman plays Minnie, Claudio Sgura plays Jack Rance and Roberto Aronica plays Dick Johnson. They play their respective roles convincingly and the sexual tension simmers throughout. The large male chorus comes across as a little too polite and with more manners that one might expect of a community of miners that is entirely devoid of female company other than Minnie! (Minnie in fact is the only female role in the entire opera!)

The staging has some fascinating production elements and is worth the admission price for that reason alone. Noting that the opera is often billed as opera’s original spaghetti western this production is designed as a play within a play, or to be more precise, a film within a film. Without giving too much away, this remarkable design feature causes us to forget the coarse features that characterise the spaghetti western genre and the uncomfortable fit between Italian grand opera and the wild west is effectively dismissed.

Even though Puccini thought La Fanciulla del West was one of his finest operas, it is perhaps not a box office winner and is not frequently performed. The highlight of the opera is Puccini’s rich musical tapestry and maestro Riccardo Chailly majestically brought it to life.

Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Twitter: @theatrekym

Rating out of 10: 7

La Fanciulla del West will screen again on 22 June 2016 as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting the Royal Opera House, La Scala and Opéra National de Paris – exclusive at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.


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