FANCIULLA

By general agreement, “The Girl of the Golden West” is Puccini’s problem
opera. Maybe so, but the Music Center Opera’s new production, unveiled
Wednesday night in an out-of-town tryout at the Orange County Performing Arts
Center in Costa Mesa, presents a whole string of problem-solvings, most of them
brilliant.
The problems are basic, the principal one being the notion of a romantic
Italian opera drawn from David Belasco’s sweet but primitive melodrama set
among bandits and miners during the California gold rush. “Whiskey per
tutti,” someone sings; “Doo-da, Doo-da” sings the chorus, and the audience
inevitably snickers. (And so the audience did on Wednesday night.) Another
problem probably escaped Belasco’s notice: the idea of a spinster of uncertain
age, virginal house-mother to a horde of thirsty miners, suddenly turned to
amorous mush by the first bandit to challenge her resistance.
Harold Prince’s production, introduced at the Chicago Lyric Opera and now here
on loan, gets around that latter problem most effectively, by pretending it
doesn’t exist. Under Prince’s guidance Gwyneth Jones’ Minnie is, quite simply,
a study in pre-menopausal repression that Tennessee Williams might have
recognized, ready to snap her hinges at the very sight of the equally middle-
aged, portly Placido Domingo, who apparently fell into banditry only because
his daddy bequeathed him his old gang.
Making no attempt at being believable, and singing away with the blazing lung-
power that Puccini’s shaggy score demands, these two superstars become the
pillars of an evening of mostly thrilling opera. It matters in no way that
there isn’t a single moment that inspires belief. It’s all pure hokum on a
level so high that you could almost mistake it for art.
It’s a handsome production, at that, with its gold-rush rusticity and its
snowflakes falling prettily — straight down despite the howling of the wind
machine. The hand of Harold Prince shows in the prevailing sense of too much of
everything: extra people-props, a set with cabins and teepees whirling around
on turntables like so many spinning tops and, in the last act, a towering
railroad scaffolding to serve as the bandit’s gallows. (On the other hand, the
customary horses have given way to a single railway handcar.)
Justino Diaz is a fine, sturdy “Sceriffo” (sheriff, to you); Michael Gallup
is his usual solid self as Sonora. Even in the questionable acoustic
surroundings at Costa Mesa, and even under Richard Buckley’s lethargic time-
beating, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra provided a suitable backdrop.
Another performance remains in Costa Mesa, Saturday at 8 p.m.; the opera
reopens at its home base in the Music Center on Wednesday, June 12 for the
first of five performances, with Carol Neblett replacing Gwyneth Jones in the
last two.
THE FACTSD
What: The Music Center Opera production of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden
West.”
Where & When: Orange County Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday; Los
Angeles Music Center at 8 p.m. June 12, 15, 18 and 21, 2 p.m. June 23.
Starring: Placido Domingo and Gwyneth Jones, with Carol Neblett replacing Jones
on June 21 and 23.
Behind the scenes: Directed by Harold Prince; conducted by Richard Buckley;
designed by Eugene and Franne {cq} Lee.
Tickets:
20 to $80; for information phone 714 556-ARTS for the Orange County
performance; 213 972-7211 for Los Angeles.