Minnesota Opera opened its 52nd season Saturday night at St. Paul’s Ordway Center with a rarity, Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”).

This is the unlikely tale of Minnie, a feisty California girl who defends her lover with a revolver, teaches Bible classes to tough gold miners, claims never to have been kissed, plays poker with the sheriff for her lover’s life and comes galloping to his rescue when he’s about to be lynched.

Puccini thought it his best opera, and though it lacks this composer’s usual string of memorable tunes, and the libretto abounds in linguistic silliness — miners ordering “whiskey per tutti” and dancing a jig to “Dooda, dooda day” — the work’s orchestration and harmonies are bold and sophisticated.

Despite the work’s preposterous story line, if it is presented with conviction, “La Girl,” as Puccini called it, can be a pleasant diversion, maybe even a rewarding experience.

That the performance Saturday night often turned into a rewarding experience, at least some of the time, was due chiefly to the high level of vocalizing by the three principal singers — Claire Rutter (Minnie), Rafael Davila (Minnie’s lover, Dick Johnson) and Greer Grimsley (Jack Rance, the sheriff) — and to the cogent, idiomatic pacing of the score, though at times a bit brass-heavy, by Michael Christie.

Rutter’s Minnie lacked a measure of swagger and brio in the opening scene — too much schoolmarm, not enough Annie Oakley. But the awakening of her love for Johnson, her blossoming as a woman, was real, and she sang throughout with bright, silvery tone and expressive eloquence. Similarly, it was hard to see Davila’s Johnson as a highwayman, albeit one trying to go straight. A certain toughness was missing. But Davila’s singing, with its natural Italianate phrasing, couldn’t be faulted. Time and again, his big rich tenor opened up at the top delivering exciting high notes without strain.

Grimsley was the evening’s dramatic center — and not for the first time, as anyone will note remembering this fine actor-singer’s past performances for this company. Embodying the Sheriff’s lust for Minnie, offering her $1,000 for a kiss, he was a cauldron of menace and frustrated desire, and his powerful bass-baritone rang out at all times with awesome force.

The production itself is attractive and picturesque. The sets, credited to Raffaele Del Salvio, were bought, we’re told, at a fire sale put on by the now-defunct Baltimore Opera. Enhanced by Marcus Dilliard’s lighting, they look like scenes from an old-time Western movie, especially the saloon in the first act.

Director Doug Scholz-Carlson enforced a nice flow to the complicated crowd scenes. True, Aaron Preusse’s fights looked fake, but maybe Preusse intended an homage to all those fake fight scenes in old western movies. Sadly, none of the horses that Puccini asked for could be seen on the mighty Ordway stage. There were 10 of them in the final act of the work’s premiere in 1910. Horses, apparently, don’t work as cheaply as they used to.

The rest of the big cast sang and acted with special fervor Saturday night, among them Gerard Michael D’Emilio (Jake Wallace), John Robert Lindsey (Nick the bartender), Andrew Lovato (Sonora) and Christian Zaremba (Ashby). The show was broadcast live across the street at Rice Park on a big video screen to an audience of a couple of hundred who braved the rain which, mercifully, stopped before curtain time. What a good idea. The plan is to do this again on opening night next season.

 

Michael Anthony writes about music.