Puccini’s unlikely Spaghetti Western of 1910 – it’s generally regarded as the first of that genre – is miles away in both location and theme from Madame Butterfly.
It’s easy to see how the Klondyke captured the imagination of audiences of the early 19th Century: the savage and thrilling landscape, the dance hall girls and drunken miners, sudden wealth dug up through hard labour and the more often discovered sudden ruin, the gambling, the gun-fights, the brawls, the mud.
So it’s equally easy to see why Puccini’s operatic attempt to recreate The Gold Rush on stage is little performed today. Opera North’s last production was 1985.
It all now looks a little predictable. Aletta Collins’ production recognises the limitations of the storyline and plays up the elements of farce without quite managing to overcome the original shortcomings.
Polka saloon owner Minnie is courted by all as the only woman in town.
Rance, the sheriff, and a southern-softy called Johnson – no real man because he’s from San Francisco and wants water in his whiskey – are rivals until Minnie chooses the southern sophisticate.
But Johnson turns out to be a Mexican bandit on the run and after a bit of coming and going which advances the drama little, a show-down arrives.
Captured, Johnson is for the noose until Minnie pleads for his life.
A messy and protracted judicial process is cut admirably short with a winner-takes-all card game. Will Minnie win?
Alwyn Miller is powerful in the demanding role of Minnie. Robert Hayward’s Rance looks the part and sings well, but frequently appears ill at ease, standing awkwardly on stage. Most engaging, as with many a rogue, is Rafael Rojas’s Johnson – a slippery stage presence.
Musically, Puccini’s score mixes folksong with modern scoring without approaching the memorable content of Butterfly. Sadly a honky-tonk piano on set remains un-played.
Dramatically, too often repeated action is finally resolved in an emotionally charged climax. A hanging looks certain until Minnie’s dramatic entrance. Her pleading for her lover’s survival is powerfully done, and the pair’s exit is fully deserved.