“The Girl of the West” (La Fanciulla del West), Puccini’s opera from 1910, has a curiously checkered reputation. This is probably due to the idea of bandits and California miners during the Gold Rush singing “Whiskey per tutti!” – a line hard to hear without snickering. But Puccini was on to something when he said it was one of his best operas.

The score is ominous, sumptuous, and brooding – only the composer of “Madame Butterfly” and “Tosca” could have written it. Furthermore, the heroine, Minnie, is one of the few heroines in Puccini who does not throw herself from a parapet, or get strangled, or commit ritual suicide. Instead, at the ending, she escapes into the sunset with her lover, the reformed bandit Dick Johnson, with the consent of the sheriff and miners who, moments before, were intent on hanging him.

“The Girl of the West” is that rarest thing: a verismo opera with a happy ending.

In his comments at the opening matinee, conductor James Meena referred to “The Girl of the West” as the “first Spaghetti western,” conjuring images of Clint Eastwood. But it might be more accurate to say that “The Girl of the West” was actually the first Western to be a great work of art, long before the films of John Ford. Minnie would then be the predecessor of those spirited heroines, usually played by Maureen O’Hara, who have the gumption to stand up to John Wayne.

The big news, as far as the stage-cast, is the presence of Marcello Giordani in the tenor role of Dick Johnson, the reformed bandit. Giordani is internationally reknowned; he is also a consummate Puccinian, who gives his least utterance the quality of truth and poetry. He does not move as well as he did 20 years ago, when his performances were startling in their freshness, but his singing is as beautiful and as direct as ever, and his performance is a lesson in how Puccini should sound.

The role of Minnie, the barkeeper and adoptive mother of the miner’s camp, is demanding. Before she is allowed to ride into that sunset, she must – as almost the sole woman in the opera – be able to withstand a tenor, a bass, a large chorus of loud men, and the fortissimo orchestra all by herself. Soprano Kristin Sampson did this with great aplomb, and only occasional strain under these stormy conditions. She was entirely creditable as Minnie, tender as well as tough, excellent in the love duet, and chilling in the scene where she plays poker with the sheriff for her lover’s life. Sampson’s Minnie was neither a tough old broad nor an ingénue, but a steadfast young woman who knows her own mind, and Sampson had her measure.

Aleksey Bogdanov, the baritone who played Sheriff Jack Rance, has a fine voice, which he colors expressively. If Minnie’s role requires that she withstand all the men onstage, Rance’s part requires that he distinguish himself among all these other men, which Bogdanov certainly did; his singing was not only beautiful but characterful.

Jason McKinney, the baritone who played Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent and bounty hunter, was also notable. The participation of Gianluca Bocchino, tenor, and Giovanni Guagliardo, baritone, added luster to this performance, but there were no weak links in this large cast.

The sets are spare without being austere, the lighting design and scenic projections beautiful and bold, but tended to over-editorialize on matters which the music had already made clear.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra approached this work like a treat, and gave the music both its fizzle and its moments of dread chill.

Unlike so many conductors, Meena never takes Puccini’s magic for granted, or allows the details to be swamped even as he pushes the work forward. This production, done in tandem with the New York City Opera, will travel to five opera houses in Italy, ending in Puccini’s hometown, Lucca. This “Girl of the West” is worthy of that honor.

Read the article on The Charlotte Observer’s website.