Giacomo Puccini’s Opera, ‘Girl of the West,’ Turns 100
Giacomo Puccini’s opera La fanciulla del West had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 10, 1910. Arturo Toscanini conducted. Moravian soprano Emmy Destinn took the title role, with Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson and Pasquale Amato as Sheriff Jack Rance. The miners inhabiting the camps during the California gold rush of the 1840s were assorted French, Italian and German artists who who filled the Met’s roster in those days. Some went on to great careers in leads: Dinh Gilly, Adamo Didur and Antonio Pini-Corsi among them. Destinn, a big girl with a big voice was greatly admired both by Puccini, Toscanini and the public-her Met career went on for a dozen year and over three hundred performances. Caruso was Caruso. The greatest voice and the greatest celebrity in the world.
La fanciulla del West is based on David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West. Belasco’s play had been a Broadway hit, starring Blanche Bates-who also created Madame Butterfly for Belasco which in turn inspired Puccini but we’ll get dizzy if we don’t focus on the task at hand. The story of a brave woman serving as mother/sister figure to a mining camp in the California gold rush was perfect for Belasco. He it was who integrated lighting and set design into the story-and he was a stickler for onstage realism and special effects. His production of Madame Butterfly included a pidgin English dialogue which could never be heard today (he was going for authenticity circa 1900.)
The crowds packed the Met to the walls to hear the new opera which was “presented in the presence of the composer”. Puccini made his second visit to New York to supervise rehearsals and lead an extra dash of glamor to the proceedings. A German stage director had been engaged at Destinn’s request but David Belasco himself crossed Broadway and took over the rehearsals.
The melodic intimacy of La boheme was missing from Puccini’s new opera. Instead, the audience heard a sophisticated-and heavy-orchestration. The orchestra is the story teller on par with the singers-there’s plenty 0f color, sure, but this is no simple accompaniment. Audiences were ecstatic.
“Applause…burst out again as Mr. Puccini appeared before the curtain with artists and conductor. Finally, he was obliged to walk out alone. Meantime however, there had been calls of Belasco! Belasco! and at last the playwright and composer appeared together amid cheers …the audience was repeatedly wrought to a high pitch of enthusiasm, and as it seemed, could hardly give sufficient acclaim to those who were responsible for the production and those who participated in it “–New York Herald
Here’s Babara Daniels from Granville, Ohio at Torre del Lago, Puccini’s hometown, in 1991..as the warm hearted Minnie:
Richard Aldrich in the New York Times was prescient when he wrote in his review of the premiere
“As to the specific quality of Mr. Puccini’s music, there is much that is significant and interesting to be noted in the score. It shows, apparently, a new step in Puccini’s development. In “Madame Butterfly” it was observed that he had ventured far into a region of new and adventurous harmonies. He has now gone still further into the field of augmented intervals and chords of higher dissonances. He has made much use of the so called “whole tone” scale and the harmonies that associate themselves with it. In a word, there is a marked predilection for the idiom that is coupled particularly with the name of Debussy” –New York Times, December 11, 1910
So there’s a big orchestra, big voiced vocal parts and sophisticated harmonies, all for an opera set in the California gold rush of 1849. The Italian language libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Civinni follows Belasco closely. Alas! We have names like Minnie, Dick Johnson, Jack Rance, Joe, Happy, ad Trin all sung in Italian. Not to mention the Indians Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit who actually do sing “Ugh!” And the miners gleefully shout “Hello!” and “Whisky per tutti!” (best translated as the hooch on the house.)
Here are Carol Neblett and Placido Domingo in a bit from Act 1. Minnie and the bandit Ramerrez aka Dick Johnson, begin to fall in love:
Minnie falls in love with the bandit Johnson who really is a good guy. This is opera. Pay attention. Minnie is also loved by the local sheriff, Jack Rance, whose wife and children are “back home in Baltimore”. Johnson is wounded in a shoot out. Minnie challenges Rance to Una partita di poker!-the winner gets Johnson. Minne hides some cards in her garter and switches hands. Tre assi e un paio! she cries. Three aces and a pair. I win!
Here’s that scene is a very famous broadcast from the Met on March 14, 1970. Anselmo Colzani is Jack and the great and loved Renata Tebaldi sings Minnie. If you want to get to her triumphant cry at the end, just FF this clip to 5:00
Dick is re captured and is about to be hanged when Minnie-literally-rides to the rescue. She shames the miners (her “boys” or, in Italian, “ragazzi”) into giving Dick back to her and together the two ride off into the sunset-almost literally-singing “Addio mia California” the while. Ridiculous? Maybe. But if the dramaturgy of Italian singing cowboys is hard for American audiences, Puccini’s most “advanced” opera is a joy to music lovers. She’s been around for one hundred years, our Minnie. Destinn and Caruso are singing in heaven and I hope Puccini is pleased. Viva Minnie!