First performed 100 years ago, Puccini’s attempt at a western is a fascinating fusion of European opera style with an American frontier storyline.
But it also demonstrates an evolution of Puccini’s style away from show-stopping arias or ensemble pieces, and towards a more fluid concept of continuous sung dialogue.
Those waiting for a famous tune must keep their patience until the final act, when they are richly rewarded with the tenor aria “Ch’ella mi creda libero”, belted out stirringly in this production by Carlo Barricelli as the enigmatic Dick Johnson.
The object of Johnson’s love, Minnie, is powerfully sung and convincingly portrayed by Zara Barrett, while the third of the main principals, sheriff Jack Rance, is also very well acted and sung by baritone Douglas McNicol.
The production, directed by Nigel Jamieson and here revived by Gavin Robins, is a wonderful piece of art, drawing its inspiration from the cinematic images that form the basis of our impressions of the wild west. This theme is set from the outset with replications of shots from old westerns projected behind and onto the sets. But the whole design of sets, costumes and characters, aided by slides and shadows, becomes a representation of black-and-white western films.
It is quite extraordinary to see performers in a stage production in monochrome, the result of the melding of the talents of the design team, including Michael Scott-Mitchell (sets), Zoe Atkinson (costumes), Scott Otto Anderson (visual designer), Mic Gruchy (digital media producer) and Philip Lethlean (lighting).
Against the dull greyness of the gold miners in their dark world it is a joy to behold the blonde Minnie when she appears in her floral yellow dress walking across the tavern’s tables. This approach continues throughout the opera splashes of colour which appear particularly vivid against their dull backdrop.
The only drawback of this approach comes when Jack Rance is interacting with Johnson and Minnie in the mountain cabin. In contrast with the flesh-coloured lovers, his whitened face and hands make him appear alarmingly spectral.
The all-male chorus give a capable and well-sung performance, providing excellent backing to the work of other principals, Jose Carbo as Sonora, Andrew Collis as Ashby and Bradley Daley as Nick, all of whom sing to their strengths.
Other soloists add to rich variety of voices and characterisations, including Richard Anderson, Samuel Sakker, Shaun Brown, Jason Barry-Smith, Virgilio Marino, David Kidd, Guy Booth, David Hibbard, Sam Hartley and Bernard Wheaton. Special mention must be made of the only other woman in the production, mezzo Anne Fulton, whose portrayal and singing of the role of native American Wowkle is very pleasing.
Given the nature of the music, the role of the orchestra is vital, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Peter Robinson produces a rich tapestry of music, including magnificent brass and percussion work.
So in all it is a vivid visual and auditory experience. Any perceived faults are the responsibility of Puccini himself. Personally, I’d have preferred a few more show-stopping arias.