• By ANDY GARRIGUE Special correspondent
Puccini’s "Girl of the Golden West" shines with winning hand
Ben Schill 

Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” features Mark Walters (from left) as Sheriff Jack Rance, Jill Gardner as Minnie and Roger Honeywell as bandit Dick Johnson. Gambling and risk set the tone woven through Giacomo Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West.” Virginia Opera’s production of this classic, which opens at Dominion Arts Center this weekend, is a sure thing, delivering an unbeatable hand.In a performance on Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Edythe C. and Stanley L. Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, Andrew Bisantz’s conducting was the first of many master strokes. He summoned the gloriously romantic, cinematic music with crisp execution, from the foreboding power of the percussion to the romantic beauty of the strings to the pastoral shades of the horns.As the curtain rises, Director Lillian Groag’s vision is revealed: a stupendous set and scenery designed by John Conklin with beautifully convincing costumes designed by Constance Hoffman. Lighting designer Adam Greene’s work stands out.

As the light comes up on the opening scene, a saloon with boisterous miners glad-handing and back slapping, loners swigging from bottles, animated card games, solitary whittling, and tender homesickness are all part of the tableau.Midway through the first act, Minnie, played by Jill Gardner, is the pistol-packing saloon owner who makes a dramatic entrance, taking command of an all-out barroom brawl, skillfully choreographed by Erik Gaden. Gardner takes command of the production as well, and never lets go.

Her singing has great emotional range, impressive clarity and flawless dynamic control. Her acting, however, is what stands out the most. In a nuanced performance, Gardner evokes both hesitancy and assuredness, vulnerability and strength, as well as worldly innocence, maternal protectiveness and fierce resolve. In addition to the music of Puccini, she is one of the aces in this production.

Tenor Roger Honeywell, as Dick Johnson, excels as well in his acting, portraying the enormous effect Minnie has upon him — enough to shake the foundations of his bandit’s soul. Honeywell is emotionally strained throughout. He is torn between his lust for gold and love for Minnie. His voice soars with emotion and great sustain.

Gardner and Honeywell have chemistry, lifting the drama to another level.Baritone Mark Walters, as the gambling, love-torn Sheriff Jack Rance, has the most impressive voice in the show. His tone is dark, rich and warm. Walters is assured and charismatic. He is another of the aces in this production.

Director Groag is an ace as well. From the smallest of touches — silently suggesting the heartbreak and tender loneliness of the characters — to the grand visual strokes, such as the blizzard that has taken over the mountains as the Sheriff’s search party fans out, he hits the mark every time.“The Girl of the Golden West” is a beautifully articulated experience worth seeing.



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