Puccini’s golden “Girl”

Article by Rodney Milnes

Why is La fanciulla del West performed much less frequently than Puccini’s other major works? There are plenty of excuses, if not reasons, some of them of the chicken-and-egg variety.

Fanciulla has a huge cast – seventeen named roles, every one of them rewarding – and the action, both internal and external, is complex. Opera companies can’t just chuck it on, as they might, say, Bohème or Tosca, which everyone knows backwards. Its successful birth at the Metropolitan Opera on 10 December 1910, the Met’s first world premiere, immediately suggested an aura of grandiosity. Toscanini conducted, Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato starred, and it was a great success with either 52 or 55 curtain calls, depending on which book you read. Within months it had been performed by five other US companies, and in London and Rome.

Big opera companies may feel that if you haven’t got a Caruso, a Nilsson or a Tebaldi, then better leave well alone. As well as detailed rehearsal, it needs three elaborate sets, which the designer Ken Adam gave it in the memorable 1977 production at Covent Garden. The only disadvantage was that it took almost as long to change those sets as it did to perform the opera. It was last revived in 2008, four years after Holland Park’s previous production. And things have been looking up since then. What some would call the two most serious opera companies in England, Opera North and Holland Park, have both mounted two new productions – this year again in Leeds, and now also at Holland Park. And there is news of a major new staging at the Coliseum next autumn. All of which is encouraging for admirers of this great work.

More chicken-and-egg. Since in the past the work has been comparatively seldom performed, people have tended to suggest that it isn’t as good as the other Puccini operas, that as a spaghetti Western it can’t really be serious. But the device of Johnson’s hiding place being betrayed by blood dripping from his wound antedates Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo by a good half-century. Puccini and his librettists got there first.

Then there is only one easily extracted aria for records, the tenor’s “Ch’ella mi creda”, and records have always had an effect on popularity. Fanciulla is indeed more through-composed than Puccini’s previous operas, with less recourse to hit numbers and the use of recurring themes. The influence of Debussy, whose music and instrumentation he greatly admired, is as palpable here as in Suor Angelica – note especially his use of the whole-tone scale and often diaphanous orchestration. But when a Big Tune is required, up it pops. The second-act love duet is as stirring as anything in Tosca, and the waltz to which Minnie and Johnson explore their burgeoning love is one of the composer’s happiest, most seductive 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 pale 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 the 1977 ROH 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 composed nothing better, and 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. 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 Madama Butterfly) and within weeks he had acquired the rights to Girl, appointing Carlo Zangarini as librettist (Zangarini’s mother was American, from Colorado). It should be remembered that in the early 20th-century gold rush, California was as exotic a location as Butterfly’s Japan. Belasco’s father had worked in a prospectors’ 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 all over the world digging for gold.

In the opera two nationalities are mentioned, many more implied by the characters’ names. The cardsharp Sid is described as “the Australian from hell”, a hideous racial slur, and homesick Jim Larkens is from Cornwall. Any women in mining communities tended to be professionals, like Nina Micheltorrena. In this connection I urgently recommend George Martin’s Verdi at the Golden Gate (University of California Press, 1991), a riveting study of the way touring opera companies won as wide popularity for the young composer as he was enjoying in Europe, and Susan Lee Johnson’s somewhat misleadingly titled Roaring Camp (Norton, 2000), both of which paint a vivid picture of these rough, tough communities and confirm Puccini’s genius in painting one such in music.

As with Butterfly, Puccini investigated national 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 as Stephen Foster’s song was in copyright. There are ragtime rhythms for the miners and Spanish patterns for Dick Johnson and his Mexican bandits.

But the masterstroke 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 a song that sums up their desperate homesickness, and sing along (quietly, Puccini insists). It is too much for Jim Larkens, a grown man who breaks down in tears – “I want my Mum!” – and the tune crashes out in the full orchestra. They pass the hat round to pay Jim’s fare back to Cornwall, and hum the tune pianissimo as he shuffles out. This is the first 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 13 minutes.

Minnie, proprietress of the Polka, is part barmaid, part schoolmarm, part Valkyrie, and earth-mother to all. Her ragazzi, her boys, all of 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”, another politically incorrect racial slur), a pistol 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, oh 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 whose way to redemption is barred.” She sings those words to a musical phrase associated with the concept of redemption, a phrase that has already launched the short, fast-and-furious Prelude (Preludes tend to tell you in advance what operas are about), and a phrase that will return at the opera’s second turning point.

The plotting of the first act is extremely clever. 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 Ramerrez early on, and about Johnson from Sacramento long before he enters, which he does on cue just 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 gives as the signal that Ramerrez may proceed with his planned robbery, 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 Mimï, where his first instinct is also for some blackberry-picking.

As the duet proceeds, she admits to him her instinctive trust, while the whistled signal reminds us that 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 opera’s second turning point. “Don’t be afraid,” sings Johnson, “no one would dare,” to the bible class’s and the Prelude’s redemption theme. The robbery is off, and the guilt-stricken bandit would also be off were it not for Minnie’s surprise suggestion that he visit her in her cabin. The end 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. Again, you would need a heart of stone not to be deeply touched.

Interestingly, the bible class and the concept of redemption do not feature in Belasco’s play or his enormously popular novelisation, still in print and easily available. It is an invention of Puccini and Zangarini, and could form the starting point for a much-needed book about Puccini and the influence of his Roman Catholic family background, with reference also to Suor Angelica. Puccini’s sister was a nun.

The only problem with Fanciulla 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 be 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 Rodolfo and Mimï. The kiss happens, Puccini’s orchestra is unleashed, but the reactions are surprising: Johnson consumed by guilt by living a lie and wanting to leave, Minnie inviting him to stay the night. Her trust is total.

That trust and his guilt have one further trial with the arrival of the posse, the revelation that Johnson/Ramerrez had planned – is still planning – the robbery, and that he has been the lover of Nina Micheltorena. The emotional shoot-out ensues. She feels utterly betrayed. He confesses to the banditry, a profitable family business he inherited from his father, but says that after meeting her he is determined 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 of murder on hers. Either way, the relationship is cleansed by fire. The rest of the act 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 almost entirely Puccini’s invention. He had fallen out with Zangarini and replaced him with Guelfo Civinini, but himself devised the third-act scenario. In Belasco’s play and novel Johnson’s trial takes place in the Polka. But its transference to an open-air setting prepares for one of opera’s great denouements: 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 a new and 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 ragazzi their bible classes, 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 at curtain fall is “Old Dog Tray”, the song if loneliness and homesickness. Happy End, my foot.

And I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for Dick Johnson’s future. I can imagine 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, but here it is the man, the tenor hero, who is – well – unmanned. And about time too, some might say.

Rodney Milnes has been writing about opera for over half a century, notably for The Times from 1992-2002, and is Chairman of the Editorial Board of Opera magazine