By Lawrence Budmen

Florida Grand Opera opened its final season at Dade County Auditorium on November 12 with Puccini’s operatic spaghetti western La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). To say that the opera’s heroine triumphantly rode off into the sunset is an understatement. FGO offered one of its finest productions in recent seasons. An attractive cast brought tremendous vocal allure to one of the Italian master’s most adventurous scores.

The hazy harmonies of French Impressionism inform Puccini’s misty orchestral palette. The rhythmic drive and delicate instrumental tone painting of the orchestral score produce a heady musical brew. Stewart Robertson conducted with finesse as well as fire. Dramatic momentum and surging lyricism were present in equal measure. Douglas Kinney Frost’s splendid male choral ensemble gave ecstatic voice to the miners’ alternately angry and nostalgic perorations.

Puccini’s Gold Rush saga requires stellar voices and FGO fielded three star turns in the leading roles. As Minnie, the opera’s proverbial Golden Girl, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs was a veritable powerhouse. Her gorgeous lyrico-spinto soprano gleamed in Puccini’s stratospheric flights. Blancke-Biggs’s incisive, rapturous, sound literally enveloped the stage. A flamboyant, charismatic stage presence, she was equally adept with a six shooter. The soprano made the poker scene a real musico-dramatic tour de force. With her beautiful voice, musical intelligence, and stunning theatricality, Blancke-Biggs is set for operatic stardom!

Russian tenor Mikhail Agafonov as Dick Johnson (actually the bandit Ramirez) was initially stiff but gained dramatic confidence as the opera progressed. He processes a ringing Italianate voice with thrilling top notes. His aria Non mi creda, a moving farewell to Minnie set to Puccini’s typically lush orchestral textures, was one of the evening’s vocal highlights. 

British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore was a rough hewn Sheriff Jack Rance. Michaels-Moore brought a modicum of dignity to a role that is often played as a stereotyped villain. The chemistry between Blancke-Biggs and Michaels-Moore lit up the stage. His dark, imposing sound rang out with stentorian power but also produced the most exquisite, dulcet pianissimos. (Hopefully Florida Grand Opera will bring Michaels-Moore back in his signature Verdi repertoire which he has sung to acclaim at the Met, Covent Garden, Berlin, and Vienna.) 

A strong supporting cast was highlighted by the manly baritone sound and scene stealing aplomb of Grant Youngblood as Ashby, Dean Anthony’s bright tenor sound and visceral stage presence as Nick, and David Crawford’s lyrical outburst as the minstrel Jake Wallace. 

Robert Wierzel’s evocative lighting set the ambience of each scene perfectly with a dark, wintry camp milieu and gorgeous California sunset in the final act. Lillian Groag staged the melodrama in a straightforward, effective manner in John Conklin’s atmospheric unit set. It was an ingenuous touch to include the playwright David Belasco (who also provided the drama for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) as one of the characters. 

La Fanciulla is one of Puccini’s most heartfelt, ambitious compositional efforts. Florida Grand Opera’s version does the composer proud. 

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