And what a build-up she’s given: Puccini’s glorious, sweeping melodies are suffused with all the longing for home felt by these hapless forty-niners. Keri-Lyn Wilson, making her ENO debut, drove the first act with restless vibrancy, while giving time for the nostalgia to pool in Jake Wallace’s spell-binding ballad, ‘the folks I left back home’, memorably sung by George Humphreys.
Individuals are sharply etched against Maria Beuther’s clinical, curiously strip-lit backwoods sets (her corrugated iron shed adding glowing resonance), particularly the charismatic Leigh Melrose as Sonora, Graham Clark’s penetrating Nick, and the desperate-to-be-dashing Ashby (Nicholas Masters). Craig Colclough’s blustering Jack Rance produced an uneven declaration of love for Minnie in the first act, answered by a beautifully shaped but occasionally shrill refusal from Bullock. It was one of those jarring moments in the piece where naturalistic drama cranks up too quickly into grand operatic lyricism. (By contrast, the surreptitious encounter between repentant bandit Ramirez (Peter Auty) and Minnie had a pacy tension).
Such odd gear-changes afflict Act Two in Minnie’s IKEA-style cabin, aided by Jones’s irrepressible sense of mischief. Minnie has invited Ramirez (under the pseudonym Johnson) back to the hut, where he hides when his identity is discovered by the miners. She suffers a momentary transformation into Edie from Absolutely Fabulous as she cheerfully pushes the heavily pregnant hand-maid Wowkle out into the blizzard to gain herself some quality time with Ramirez. Auty can sometimes seem slightly shifty on stage, but here the sense of not being comfortable in his own skin paid dividends, coupled with his impressively fluid delivery. Tension sagged in the intimate scene between the lovers, not helped by over-generous tempi, but ratcheted up for the poker game between Rance and Minnie: not for the first time in the score, Puccini’s drains the harmony leaving only the dry heartbeat of drums.
The dramatic third act, in which Minnie saves Ramirez from lynching, finally achieves coherence, the weedy miners acquiring a bestial snarl, until Minnie’s eloquent appeal brings out the child in them all. As Jones’s lonely troupe recede into a sepia tableau, he persuades us that Puccini was not just playing with an exotic location: he captured the very spirit of California, scene of reckless, rootless, often tragic, adventure.
The young Canadian Wilson received a roar of approval. What a pity critics felt compelled to name her as Met chief Peter Gelb’s wife, while declaring she needed no apology. She didn’t, and is clearly one to watch entirely in her own right.