Image: Opera North
Critic Sir Christopher Frayling said that ‘…it was Giacomo Puccini who wrote the first Spaghetti Western worthy of the name…’ and it’s a proper old fashioned western of saloon brawls, poker games and neat whiskey that Opera North have created for their production of Puccini’s Girl Of The Golden West . Set in the years following the 1849 Californian Gold Rush, this is the story of Millie, one of those very few women to set up business in a land populated overwhelmingly by men. This is a landscape teeming with people from all over the world, panning the rivers and mining the mountains in search of gold and fortune.
Pucinni evidently had a penchant for the leading women in exotic settings of play-write David Belasco; just a few years previously he had adapted Belasco’s Madame Butterfly into an another dramatic opera. Although Millie (sung by Alwyn Mellor), pistol in hand and a pair of aces in her bra, is very much the opposite of delicate Cio-Cio San, she is also in many ways just as naive as her Japanese counterpart. From the very first, where Millie suddenly appears shooting into the air to restore order to a rabble of miners, no one would deny that she truly is a fanciulla, a young and naive woman, who talks innocently of love and has never kissed a man. All this comes to a head in the second act, when Millie finds herself alone with Dick Johnson (Mexican-born Rafael Rojas), for whom she has so deeply fallen. But Johnson is also Ramirrez, the leader of a highway gang wanted by just about everyone else in the town, on the run from a mob of angry Miners. Millie is forced to save the man she loves, pistol in hand, through an act of selfless devotion . In the end it is her appeal to the miners hearts, to their love for her, that allows her to ride into the sunset with Johnson/Ramirrez. This fanciulla is perhaps not so naive.
Everyone knows those quintessential shots of western cinema: the long shadows of whatever dots the landscape; the full, bright moon high above; the swaying saloon doors as the main characters ride into the sunset. Well, one of the most striking features of Opera North’s production is their use cinematographic effects for the backdrop, perfectly evoking The Western of the silver screen. Add to this the great score by Puccini, which is so very reminiscent of western soundtracks, and you have a production which feels thoroughly authentic. People don’t go to the opera for the libretto – they go for the spectacle and, above all, the music. Richard Farnes, Opera North’s Orchestra Director, has proved once again that he can get his orchestra to do justice to just about any score. A note of congratulations too, to the leading lady in an almost all male cast, Alwyn Mellor, whose singing was truly exceptional throughout, hitting some astoundingly high notes.
Anyone who has ever watched Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, will know that the Italians are damned good at westerns. Puccini’s Fanciulla proves that it is not just in cinema, which was still in its infancy at the time, but also on stage that the genre can work to great effect. Tarantino might have shelved his western last month but you don’t need to go to the cinema to see a great one. Head down to the Grand Theatre at Leeds (cheap student tickets in the stalls if you weren’t aware) and be delighted by the drama of the very first spaghetti western!