This is the centenary year for “La Fanciulla del West”, and the story of how the opera came to be is an interesting one. Puccini was in New York overseeing the Met premier of “Madama Butterfly,” which itself was adapted from a play by the American David Belasco, who was at this time the king of Broadway in particular, and American theatre in general. While there, he went to see another of Belasco’s shows, “The Girl of the Golden West,” which was on Broadway at the time. Puccini thought this uniquely American play had great potential as well, and went to work on an adaptation for the opera stage.
It was agreed that the new opera would open in New York, giving the Met its first ever world premier, which was an artistic intersection like few others. Belasco himself did the stage direction; Arturo Toscanini, one of the most famous conductors in the world, lead the orchestra. The role of the reluctant bandit “Dick Johnson” was created by Enrico Caruso, and famous Czech soprano Emmy Destinn starred as Minnie, the heroine
Although Puccini thought it perhaps his best opera, “Fanciulla” has not remained as popular as “Madame Butterfly,” “Tosca,” or “Turandot,” perhaps because it is in a more naturalistic and conversational style, and does not have any show-stopping arias like “Un Bel Di,” “Vissi d’Arte,” or “Nessun Dorma.” Also, unusually for Puccini, it has a happy ending which seems a bit anticlimactic compared with the tear-jerking tragedy of his other works.
The story is set in an unnamed California mining town, where “Minnie” (Debra Voight) owns the Polka Salloon. As the opera opens, we see her bartender, Nick, opening up while the town sheriff, Jack Rance (Lucio Gallo), deals solitaire at a table. The miners rush in, bemoaning the fact that the universally beloved Minnie is not on duty yet. (Minnie is apparently the only woman in town, other than a Mexican woman of apparently dubious virtue who is mentioned but not seen--). They proceed to drink, smoke, gamble, sing, and eventually brawl, until Minnie appears and restores order with a warning shot from her rifle. This brings the miners to heel like naughty children.
Minnie staves off marriage proposals from half the men, including the Sheriff, and proceeds to set up part of the saloon for her regular Bible study course. This is interrupted when the mysterious stranger, “Dick Johnson,” (Marcello Giordani) arrives and proceeds to charm Minnie, much to Rance’s frustration. Then, men arrive with a captured member of the Bandit Ramerrez’ gang, who has supposedly agreed to tell where the notorious robber is hiding. While the miners organize a posse, muttered exchanges make it clear that Dick Johnson is in fact Ramerrez, and the robber has deliberately let himself been captured in order to lead the townsmen away while Ramerrez robs the saloon, which the miners use as a bank to store their gold. Once left alone with Minnie, Johnson can’t bring himself to go through with the robbery. Instead, he confesses his love for Minnie, who agrees to meet him at her cabin later.
In the second act, we see Minnie’s cabin, tended by her Indian servant “Wowkle,” (the only other female in the cast). Minnie arrives, and Wowkle helps her prepare for Johnson’s visit. Johnson arrives. The sheriff and posse arrive soon after, on the trail of Johnson, who has been identified as the bandit by the Mexican woman. Minnie hides Johnson, then, angrily throws Johnson out once they have left, despite his protestations he will give up banditry for her. Johnson is shot from ambush, and staggers back to Minnie’s door. She takes him in and hides him in her loft. Rance’s men are spread out beating the bushes for Johnson, so Rance arrives back at Minnie’s door alone. She has almost convinced him that Johnson isn’t there when a drop of blood falls on his hand from the ceiling boards. Unable to resist, the wounded Johnson is taken prisoner. Minnie appeals to Rance’s gambling urge by wagering on three hands of poker that if Rance wins, he will have both Johnson and herself, but if she wins Johnson is hers. Using techniques learned at the saloon, she cheats Rance on the final hand to win. He leaves, and she exults.
In the third act, some time later, Johnson (who is apparently very unlucky for a robber) has been captured again, by miners lead by Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent. Rance exults that he can watch his hated rival hang, while still keeping his own word to Minnie. Johnson will go meekly to his death, but asks of the miners that they not tell Minnie of the manner of his death, allowing her to go on believing that he is free and far away. However, before he can be lynched, Minnie arrives, armed, and threatens to kill herself if Johnson dies. She appeals to the miners, telling each of them that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves, and (echoing her Bible lesson from the first act) that Johnson has turned over a new leaf and found salvation. One by one, the miners agree, and Johnson is freed to leave with Minnie, singing together “Farewell, California.”
The Met did this anniversary production up splendidly with marvelously detailed full sets depicting the interior of the Polka Saloon, Minnie’s cabin, and the town street with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Costumes were authentic and good-looking, with Minnie’s maroon outfits standing out among the miners’ worn brown canvas and buckskins. Johnson has the classic “lone rider” outfit of black cavalry shirt and long duster, whereas Rance is a rather “Wyatt Earp” image with his dressy suit and long white coat. One of the intermission features touched on the formidable array of props the show required. The large number of guns required was mentioned, which evidently required some eking out; thanks to the HD close-ups, I was amused to note that, in the third act, Rance, who had been using a Winchester carbine in the second act, was armed with a percussion musket that probably belonged to the “Tosca” firing squad, whereas Nick the bartender was carrying a too-modern bolt-action Mauser rifle. (I am probably the only audience member that noticed this--.)
Singing and acting were alike splendid. Voigt, who is doing “Die Valkurie” at the Met later this year, was in great voice, and handled the long and difficult role of Minnie splendidly. Marcello Giordani and Lucio Gallo were also excellent, as were the choristers and supernumaries that made up the majority of the cast. Conductor Nicola Luisotti did a wonderful job with the score and the orchestra.
Overall, an excellent production of an opera that is rarely seen, at least in these parts, and we were gald to have seen it.
(Note: for those that might be interested, the HD broadcast will be repeated on Wednesday evening, January 26th, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago will be presenting “La Fanciulla del West” (under the title “The Girl of the Golden West,”) January 22nd through February 21st, starring both Voigt and Giordani.
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