A Country Western in Opera

We caught Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West at the Lyric tonight. Deborah Voigt stars as Minnie, the proprietress of Polka, a saloon in California during the gold rush years. She first debuted the role in San Francisco last year, at the 100th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, and has subsequently sung it at the Metropolitan Opera and now the Lyric.

Personally, I thought the performance seemed more like a musical drama rather than an opera – the arias, while beautifully sung by the singers, don’t have the panache of some of Puccini’s other arias like in Boheme, Turandot, or Butterfly… they’re just not as memorable (Although, according to the Lyric’s program guide, “the climatic phrase in Dick Johnson’s aria, “Quello che taceta,” bears a strong resemblance to a similar phrase in the Phantom’s song, “Music of the Night,” in Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera. Following the musical’s success, the Puccini estate filed suit against Lloyd Webber accusing him of plagiarism and the suit was settled out of court.”). But the orchestra led the drama and the plot. The music was evocative and compelling, and effectively set up the atmosphere.

While the first act seemed a little too draggy, with its introduction and setting up of the characters, the pace quickened in the second and third acts, and had me glued to the edge of my seat watching with bated breath as the drama unfolded. And although Deborah Voigt did not come charging into the climatic last act on a horse (as Emmy Destinn did in 1910), she did drive in on a handcar, thrilling as she came pumping vigorously in, much to the hilarity of the audience!

With the exception of Macbeth, I’ve loved all the operas so far this season at the Lyric. Only two more left to go!

Jack Zimmerman’s analysis of La fanciulla del West (Marcelo Giordani was replaced by Roy Cornelius Smith in our performance tonight):

In 1890, Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West troupe performed throughout Europe. A collection of sharpshooters, cowboys with lassos, and Indians armed with bows and arrows, the Wild West show was equal parts circus, rodeo, and western pageant. Cody – a former buffalo hunter, cavalry scout, and genuine frontier hero – was a born showman, and his show was the first taste of the American West for many Europeans.

At one performance in Italy, a well-dressed man in his early 30s watched intently and was so impressed that he wrote to his brother in South America, “With a large number of Indians and buffalos, they do splendid sharpshooting and recreate authentic scenes of the frontier.”

The writer of those words was 31-year-old Giacomo Puccini, and more than likely, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West extravaganza was his introduction to this exotic culture. Puccini had yet to write Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohème (1896), and Madama Butterfly (1904). His next opera, La fanciulla del West ( The Girl of the Golden West ), wouldn’t arrive until 1910. Fanciulla was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and was the first world premiere ever presented by that company. The original production starred Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson and Emmy Destinn as Minnie. Arturo Toscanini conducted. Puccini himself was present for the rehearsals and its opening-night performance.

Puccini had been blessed with a phenomenal ability to craft beautiful melodies, and thanks to his libretti, he populated his operas with compelling and original heroines. One such heroine was Minnie in Fanciulla. “The greatest Doris Day character in opera…the virgin den mother of a California mining camp, circa 1849,” was how Chicago Sun-Times music critic Robert C. Marsh characterized her in his review of Lyric’s previous Fanciulla production (1990).

Puccini found Minnie in a play by American playwright David Belasco, whose father came west for the California Gold Rush. Among Belasco’s many works was Madame Butterfly, a story that Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa crafted into Madama Butterfly. After that opera premiered, Puccini reappraised his place in music. He said that he had had enough of “Bohème, Butterfly, and company” and wanted to move in a new direction: “People are sick of my sugary music.” To move on he needed a libretto that would support such a departure. Between 1904 and 1907 he considered numerous stories and finally chose The Girl of the Golden West after seeing it staged during his 1907 visit to New York.

The story centers around Minnie, who owns the Polka Saloon and who’s adored by the miners who drink there (during the Gold Rush, California’s female population was only eight percent – every woman was adored!). A stranger enters and says he’s Dick Johnson from Sacramento, but he’s really the outlaw Ramerrez. He and Minnie quickly fall in love.

When he goes to her cabin for supper, a posse follows him. Johnson is shot when he leaves. He staggers back to the cabin and Minnie hides him in the loft. The sheriff finds him but Minnie makes the sheriff an offer: If she beats him at poker, he’s to let Johnson go; if the sheriff wins, Minnie will be the lawman’s bride.

Minnie cheats and wins, but later Johnson is captured again. This time the sheriff orders the miners to hang him. Just before hanging, Minnie convinces the miners that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves. She asks them to forgive him, and they do. Then it’s “Happy Trails” for Minnie and Johnson, who ride off to start a new life together.

“The orchestral writing is the most remarkable of any Puccini score,” says Sir Andrew Davis, who will conduct all performances of Fanciulla. “The fact that Puccini wrote such great tunes often blinds people to the fact that he was one of the great orchestrators. People often say that in Wagner operas, the orchestra is constantly telling you what’s happening on stage, but Puccini does the same thing!”

At Lyric, Fanciulla has been offered in 1956, 1978, and 1990-91. Broadway’s Harold Prince, who also staged Madama Butterfly and Candide here, originally directed the current production in 1978. The original set designer was Eugene Lee and his wife Franne designed the costumes. The 2010-11 Fanciulla has Vincent Liotta directing (he remounted Prince’s Madama Butterfly here in 2008-09), and additional scenery and costumes are designed by Lyric’s production designer Scott Marr.

After the last notes of the 1910 premiere performance faded, the New York audience clapped, stomped, shouted, whistled and carries on for 55 curtain calls, of which 30 were for Puccini. At two in the morning, Puccini, his son Antonio, Puccini’s publisher Tito Ricordi, and Toscanini went to an Italian restaurant to celebrate. Puccini did not leave his bed until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. “A success!” is what he wrote to a friend in Italy. “My very best opera.”

Soprano Deborah Voigt and tenor Marcello Giordani are singing their first Fanciullas this year, and both neatly fit their roles. Voigt is a down-home, golden-haired gal who grew up in California (and Chicago). She’s feisty, flirtatious, highly principled, and radiant – just like Minnie. Giordani is dark and handsome, with a touch of danger and mystery – just like Ramerrez, a.k.a. Dick Johnson. The stars will reunite at the Metropolitan Opera for a 100 th -anniversary Fanciulla in December before proceeding to Lyric. (Their costar, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, plays Sheriff Jack Rance in his Lyric debut).

Comparing Minnie to Tosca and her Wagner and Strauss roles, Voigt notes, “What the others have a good deal of, which Minnie doesn’t, is time. She doesn’t have long, flowing vocal lines, or even pauses, which help the character to convey emotions. Minnie has to sing through or over a lot of stage activity. Puccini was exploring a more drama-and-action-oriented style of composition, which he delved into orchestrally and vocally with Fanciulla.” She finds the opera and her character “particularly appealing because the story serves up a uniquely American female character. And it’s very ‘Italianate,’ so the combination is fun, too.” Voigt likes that Minnie emulates the happy, loving atmosphere of her parents’ inn: “Don’t most of us try to recreate whatever made us happy as children? She loves the miners like brothers, teaches them the Bible, helps them learn to read and write, and shows them compassion. But don’t forget: her primary goal is to find the right man. She is willing to bide her time until the right one comes along.”

“Johnson is a wonderfully rich character,” says Giordani. “His music has a different structure and tinta (dramatic flavor) than Puccini’s other tenors. There are many conversational exchanges, but with beautiful, lyric expressions throughout. We all like Rodolfo, Des Grieux, and Cavaradossi right away and have no reason to change our opinion. (Pinkerton is another matter!) Johnson is more complex. He’s not happy with his life as a bandit; he aspires to a better life. With this chance encounter with Minnie, he finds hope and love that he never expected to find, and Minnie goes through a similar transformation. Minnie eventually shows she forgives him by saving him at the gallows, and I think the audience forgives him as well.” Giordani looks forward to collaborating with Voigt, with whom he’s sung nine Ballo s at the Met. “She is a wonderful colleague, a very expressive singer, without a doubt one of America’s great sopranos.”

Clearly, they’ll be making beautiful music together at Lyric, for which audiences can be grateful.

Also, NYTime’s review of the Met Performance.

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