Sunday, December 5, 2010

Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West" Centennial Celebrations


By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This week marks the centennial of the world premiere of  "La Fanciulla del West" -- the opera by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini based on the play "The Girl of the Golden West" by David Belasco... and celebrations are under way to mark the occasion.

The opera is set during the California Gold Rush, with a wealth of wild west figures, stereotypes and iconic situations and atmosphere: the Imaginary Wild West as high culture. (I described my own visit to the Gold Rush country in October in a blog post on this site.) Puccini was inspired to some extent by Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which he saw in Italy when it made one of its tours of Europe. Puccini also owned a copy of a 1907 book on Native American music, which he used in composing the opera. He also owned a copy of Alice C. Fletcher's 1906 book  "Indian Story and Song from North America."

The premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on December 10, 1910 with Enrico Caruso and Emmy Dustin in the leading roles as Dick Johnson and Minnie, and Pasquale Amato as Jack Rance.  Arturo Toscanini was the conductor. The event merited a front page story in the New York Times.

Here's a clip of a young Placido Domingo singing an aria from it:

A web site has been launched for the centennial, and a symposium is taking place this week at Boston University.
The Metropolitan Opera will present La Fanciulla del West conducted by Nicola Luisotti and starring Deborah Voigt, Marcello Giordani, and Lucio Gallo, beginning December 6 and running through January 8, including a performance on December 10 one hundred years to the day of the premiere. Simonetta Puccini, the composer's granddaughter, and Walfredo Toscanini, the maestro's grandson, are expected to attend. The final performance on January 8 will be seen in more that 1,500 movie theaters around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series and broadcast live over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network.

Here is a synopsis of the opera from the web site

Act I. The interior of the Polka Saloon
A group of Gold Rush miners enter the saloon after a day working at the mine. After a song by traveling minstrel Jake Wallace, one of the miners, Jim Larkens, is homesick and the miners collect enough money for his fare home. A group of miners playing cards discover that Sid is cheating and want to attack him. Sheriff Jack Rance quiets the fight and pins two cards to Sid's jacket, as a sign of a cheater. A Wells Fargo agent, Ashby, enters and announces that he is chasing the bandit Ramerrez and his gang of Mexicans. Rance toasts Minnie, the girl who owns the saloon, as his future wife, which makes Sonora jealous. The two men begin to fight. Rance draws his revolver but at that moment, a shot rings out and Minnie stands next to the bar with a rifle in her hands. She gives the miners a reading lesson from the Bible. The Pony Express rider arrives and delivers a telegram from Nina Micheltorena, offering to reveal Ramerrez's hideout. The sheriff tells Minnie that he loves her. But Minnie is waiting for the right man. A stranger enters the saloon and asks for a whisky and water, who introduces himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento, and whom Minnie had met earlier. Johnson invites Minnie to dance with him and she accepts. Angrily, Rance watches them. Ashby returns with the captured Ramerrez gang member, Castro. Upon seeing his leader, Johnson, in the saloon, Castro agrees to lead Rance, Ashby and the miners in a search for Ramerrez, and the group then follows him on a false trail and in what turns out to be a wild goose chase. But before Castro leaves, he whispers to Johnson that somebody will whistle and Johnson must reply to confirm that the place is clear. A whistle is heard, but Johnson fails to reply. Minnie shows Johnson the keg of gold that she and the miners take turns to guard at night and Johnson reassures her that the gold will be safe there. Before he leaves the saloon, he promises to visit her at her cabin. They confess their love for each other. Minnie begins to cry, Johnson comforts her before he leaves.

Act II. Minnie's dwelling

Wowkle, a Native American squaw who is Minnie’s servant, her lover Billy Jackrabbit and their baby are present as Minnie enters, wanting to get ready for Johnson’s visit. Johnson enters Minnie's cabin and she tells him all about her life. It begins to snow. They kiss and asks him to stay till morning. He denies knowing Nina Micheltorena. As Johnson hides, a posse enters looking for Ramerrez, revealing to Minnie that Johnson himself is the bandit. Angry, she orders him to leave. After leaving, Minnie hears a gunshot and she knows Johnson has been shot. Johnson staggers in and collapses, and Minnie helps him by hiding him up in the loft. Rance enters Minnie's cabin looking for the bandit and is about to give up searching for Johnson, when drops of blood fall on his hand from the loft above where Johnson is hiding. Rance forces Johnson to climb down. Minnie desperately makes Rance an offer: if she beats him at poker, he must let Johnson go free; if Rance wins, she will marry him. Hiding some cards in her stockings, Minnie cheats and wins. Rance honors the deal and
Minnie throws herself on the unconscious Johnson on the floor.

Act III. The Great California Forest

Johnson is again on the run from Ashby and the miners. Nick and Rance are discussing Johnson and wonder what Minnie sees in him when Ashby arrives in triumph: Johnson has been captured. Rance and the miners all want Johnson to be hanged. Johnson accepts the sentence and only asks the miners not to tell Minnie about his capture and his fate.
Minnie arrives, armed with a pistol, just before the execution and throws herself in front of Johnson to protect him. While Rance tries to proceed, she convinces the miners that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves, and asks them to forgive him. One by one, the miners yield to her plea. Rance is not happy but finally he too gives in. Sonora unties Johnson and set him free. The miners bid Minnie farewell. Minnie and Johnson leave California to start a new life together.

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