Fanciulla – The Golden Prize by Rodney Milnes

Article by Rodney Milnes

Fanciulla has a huge cast – seventeen named roles, every one of them rewarding – and the action, both external and internal, is complex. Opera companies can’t just chuck it on, as they might, say chuck on Tosca or Butterfly, which everyone knows backwards. It is successful birth at the Metropolitan Opera on 10 December 1910, the Met’s first world premiere, immediately suggested an aura of grandiosity. Toscanni conducted, Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato starred, and it was a great success, with either fifty-two or fifty-five curtain calls, depending on which book you read.  It was staged in Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, Boston, London and Rome within months of the premiere. Big opera companies feel that if you haven’t got a Caruso, or a Nilsson, or a Tebaldi, then better leave well alone. As well as detailed rehearsal, a forbidding expense for major companies, it needs three elaborate sets, which the designer Ken Adam gave it in the memorable 1977 production at Covent Garden. The disadvantage was that it took almost as long to change those sets as it did to perform the opera. Last revived thirteen years ago, that was the last production in London until now. Well, you don’t need Caruso at Holland Park, at least not without ear-plugs, and you physically can’t have elaborate sets. But you can at least perform the piece, and London audiences will indeed be grateful for an opportunity to hear Fanciulla again, at last.

More chicken and egg. Since the work is comparatively seldom performed, people have tended to suggest that it isn’t as good as all the other Pucccini works, that as an operatic spaghetti Western it can’t really be serious. But the device of Johnson’s hiding place being portrayed by blood dripping from his wound antedates Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo by a good half-century.  Puccini got there first. There is only one easily extractable aria for records, the tenor “Ch’ella mi creda”, and records have always had an effect on popularity. Fanciulla is indeed more ‘through composed’ than Puccini’s other operas with less recourse to hit numbers and the use of recurring themes. The influence of Debussy, whose music and instrumentation Puccini greatly admired, is as palpable here as in Suor Angelica – note especially his use of the whole-tone scale and the often diaphanous orchestration. But when the ‘big tune’ is needed, up it pops: the second-act love duet is as stirring as that in Tosca, and the waltz in which Minnie and Johnson explore their burgeoning love is one of the composer’s happiest inventions.

Yet even that great Puccini scholar Mosco Carner was a little sniffy about Fanciulla in the original edition of his biography (1958), thinking it, curiously enough, a carbon copy of Tosca (any parallels are superficial and tendentious) and finding Puccini’s own description of it as ‘a second Bohème’ incomprehensible. By the time of 1977 Royal Opera production Carner had modified his views, dubbing Fanciulla “stylistically and technically the most interesting of Puccini’s operas”. I would go further, and maintain that he wrote nothing better.

For three main reasons. First, the highly romantic but very real presentation of a loving relationship, which I think is what Puccini meant by “a second Bohème”, and “the schoolmarm and the bandit” is one of the most enduring (and endearing) human myths. Secondly, the moral, if not religious dimension wrought by and through that relationship (a book needs to be written about Puccini and religion, and it will have to be by a Roman Catholic). Thirdly, the extraordinary skill – even by his own high standards – with which he creates the world in which the opera takes place.

To take the last point first, Puccini had a head start with David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West, which he saw in New York in 1907. He had, of course, already set Belasco’s Madame Butterfly. Within weeks he had acquired the rights to Girl, and appointed Carlo Zangarini as librettist (Zangarini’s mother was an American from Colorado). It must be remembered that in the early 20th century gold-rush, California was as exotic as Butterfly’s Japan. Belasco’s father had worked in a prospector’s camp, and as a young actor Belasco himself had toured there. He knew what he was writing about: a virtually all-male community, with men from over the world digging for gold.  In the opera two nationalities are mentioned, many implied by name. The cardsharp Sid is described as “the Australian from hell”, an unpardonable racial slur, and homesick Jim Larkens is from Cornwall. Any women in mining communities tended to be professionals, like Nina Micheltorena. In this connection, I urgently recommend George Martin’s Verdi at the Golden Gate (University of California Press), a study of the way touring opera companies inspired as wide popularity for the young composer as he was enjoying in Europe, and Susan Lee Johnson’s misleadingly titled Roaring Camp (Norton), both of which paint a vivid picture of these rough, tough communities and confirm Puccini’s skill in painting one such in music.

As with Butterfly, Puccini investigated American music in the interests of authenticity. Wowkle’s second act lullaby is a straight transcription of an Indian melody. Puccini’s version of “The Camptown Races” is especially charming and it had to be a version since Stephen Foster’s song was still in copyright. There are ragtime rhythms for the miners and Spanish patterns for Dick Johnson and his Mexican bandits. The master stroke, though is “Old Dog Tray”, or “Echoes from Home”, the song sung by Jake Wallace (a historical figure) early in the first act. His entry silences the gamblers, drinkers and cigar-smokers in the Polka saloon. They all know the song that sums up their desperate homesickness, and sing along (quietly, Puccini insists). It is too much for Larkens, a grown man who breaks down in tears: “I want my Mum!” and the tune crashes out on full orchestra. They pass the hat round to help pay his fare back to Cornwall, and hum the tune pianissimo as he shuffles out. This is the turning point in Fanciulla, the moment of suspension of disbelief. If you are moved by it – and you would need a heart of stone not to be – you are lost and thereafter can only surrender to the very real, very imaginary world that Puccini has created in just thirteen minutes.

Minnie, proprietress of the Polka, is part barmaid, part schoolmarm, part Valkyrie, and earth mother to them all. Her ragazzi, her boys, all whom adore her, store their hard-won gold in her saloon. Has any other operatic heroine been given a greater entrance? After the cardsharp has been punished a fight breaks out, insults are exchanged (“Chink-face”, more political incorrectness), a gun is drawn, a shot is fired (wide) and to her own great rolling melody Minnie enters to restore order threatening to suspend her bible classes as punishment. But she soon relents, taking as her text Psalm 51. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And Minnie’s own lesson to be drawn? That means, boys, that there is no sinner in the world has already dominated the fast-and-furious prelude (preludes tend to tell you what operas are about) and will frequently return, notably at the opera’s second turning point.

The plotting of the first act is extremely skilful. Sheriff Rance is established not as some small-town Scarpia but as a gambler and – despite normal human impulses, like lust – a gentleman. We are told about the threat from the bandit Rammerrez early on, and about Johnson from Sacramento long before he enters, which he does, on cue, as Minnie finishes her aria about the dream of a true love to match that of her parents. The rest of the act is basically a ‘getting to know you’ duet, cunningly interspersed with such plot details as the bandit Castro’s capture, the whistle he will give as the signal that Ramerrez may proceed, and his sending the miners on a wild goose chase leaving Minnie and Johnson alone. They’ve met before, on the trail to Monterey. He gave her a flower and then suggested they leave the trail to ‘pick blackberries’. She prudently declined. She was, and is, a ‘nice girl’ who has never been kissed. Neither has forgotten that Brief Encounter. One is reminded of the first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimì, where his first instinct is also for black-picking.

As the duet proceeds, she admits to him her instinctive trust, while the whistled signal reminds us it is misplaced. But as she stands by the barrel in which the miners’ gold is stored, promising that any robber will have to kill her first, we reach the second turning point. “Don’t be afraid,” sings Johnson, “no one would dare,” to the redemption theme. The robbery is off, and the guilt-striken robber would also be off were it not for Minnie’s surprise suggestion that he visit her in her cabin. The ending of the act, with off-stage chorus humming Minnie’s tune while Johnson tells her she has “the face of an angel” – an angel of redemption – is one of Puccini’s most truly poetic effects.

The only problem is that the opera is almost over as far as the internal action is concerned – Johnson is redeemed – but there is still plenty of external action to come, and Minnie’s and Johnson’s love must be further developed and then cleansed by fire. The scene in the cabin might almost have been written by Tennessee Williams: Minnie excitedly dolling herself up to receive her first gentleman caller, the gentleman caller wanting things to go faster than she does. He lies about Nina Micheltorena, she admits (like Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana) to a love of romantic novels and says she can’t see the point of one-night stands. Again, very like Mimì and Rodolfo. The kiss happens, Puccini’s orchestra is unleashed, but the reactions are surprising: Johnson consumed with guilt at still living a lie and wanting to leave, Minnie inviting him to stay the night. Her trust is total.

Her trust and his guilt have one further test, with the arrival of the posse, the revelation that Johnson/Ramerrez had planned – is still planning – the robbery and has been the lover of Nina. The emotional shoot-out ensues. She feels utterly betrayed. He confesses his banditry, which is hereditary, but says that after meeting her he wanted to go straight. This cuts no ice with her. He runs out into the arms of the posse, which is an act of suicide on his part or murder on hers. Either way, the relationship is cleansed by fire. The rest of the scene is all action, the dripping blood, the game of poker, schoolmarm Minnie cheating to save her man. Rance remains, oddly enough, the perfect gentleman.

The short third act is mainly Puccini’s invention. He had fallen out with the librettist Zangarini and replaced him with Guelfo Civinini, but himself devised the third-act scenario. In Belasco’s play Johnson’s trail takes place at the Polka, but its transference to an open-air setting prepares for one of opera’s legendary moments: the man hunt, the lynch mob about to string Johnson up and Minnie riding in to save him at pistol-point. She reminds her ragazzi that she has given them the best years of her life, going into some detail about her various kindnesses, for which Puccini comes up with another memorable tune. All save Rance relent, and schoolmarm and bandit ride off into the sunrise.

It is often said that Fanciulla is the only full-length Puccini opera with a Happy End. But who is going to give the miners their bible class, who is going to read them their letters from home and draft the replies, who is going to nurse them through sickness, darn their socks and guard their gold? Who is to be their universal aunt and earth mother? The last music to be heard is “Old Dog Tray”, the song of loneliness and home-sickness. Happy End, my foot.

And I wouldn’t hold out too much for Dick Johnson’s future happiness. I can see Minnie founding a Bible School in the Mission district of San Francisco. Dick will sit pedalling away at a dusty old harmonium accompanying the hymns, and occasionally be allowed to take round the collection plate, under strict supervision just in case he reverts to his old ways. Puccini is always criticised for destroying his operatic women; here it is the man, the tenor hero who is – well – unmanned. And about time too, some would say.