8 January 2011: Puccini, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)

(Based on a play of the same title by David Belasco.) Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcast, seen in the West Springfield Cinemas. Conducted by Nicola Luisotti; production Giancarlo del Monaco. Cast: Minnie: Deborah Voigt; Dick Johnson: Marcelo Giordani; Jack Rance: Lucio Gallo. Plus five horses, unnamed. Performance time 4.5 hours.

Puccini is a celebrated practitioner of the verismo style of opera. A helpful definition of the term may be found in Wikipedia: “Internationally, the term is more widely understood to refer to a style of Italian opera that began in 1890 with the first performance of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, peaked in the early 1900s, and lingered into the 1920s. The style is distinguished by realistic – sometimes sordid or violent – depictions of everyday life, especially the life of the contemporary lower classes. It by and large rejects the historical subjects associated with Romanticism, or mythical ones.”

Del Monaco’s production, revived this year at the Met, can be seen to accord with this description, just as Puccini’s opera does. But if we consider the origins of the opera, in Belasco’s hit play of 1905, The Girl Of the Golden West, we would want to be careful to remember that Belasco is not to be confused with the French naturalists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Belasco is at heart a romanticist of the first order, and his heart is in the right place. The title character of his play, and of Puccini’s opera, is Minnie, a prostitute with a heart of gold, so golden that, where realism would dictate that she was a woman in a frontier situation where sexual purity was not possible, this character has been transformed by Belasco into a selfless sweetheart of a virgin, who explains that she has never been kissed. But this same sweetheart of a golden girl, in the course of Act Two, offers us a kind of “facts-of-the-matter” revelation: I, she says, am no one, a tavern keeper in a frontier outpost; you, she says to Dick Johnson, otherwise identified as the Mexican bandit Ramirrez, are nothing more than a robber; and the Sheriff, Jack Rance, is no more than a gambler. We are nobodies, she means to say, and the implication is that they are not worth anyone’s attention. And yet they are much more than nobodies. Belasco has romanticized their very undistinguished origin and social place into a quasi-mythical drama in which we are led to understand that these persons are fully representative of common humanity, with ambitions, feelings, doubts, and soul-felt needs that make them eminently worth our caring about. Notwithstanding their ordinariness, they are special, even unique persons, and we must want them to do well for themselves, to survive and, if luck will have it, thrive and love. If they can’t outlive fate and time, they can at least be true to one another.

So much for verismo. This was not the first time that Puccini had put his stamp of musical approval on the Belasco view of the universe. Madama Butterfly was, I believe, the first time that Puccini and Belasco had a meeting of hearts, and minds. Fanciulla was the second, and at least equally successful instance. Even though Deborah Voigt is hardly believable as a never-kissed maiden — she is forty if she is a day and has evidently gained back some of the weight she lost after the “little black dress” fiasco, when she was denied a role at Covent Garden for being so much overweight — she is a very good actress, and she gives us a completely believable Minnie, a “girl” who goes through much difficulty before finally rescuing her lover, Ramirrez, the bandit who has stolen her heart, as he is about to be hanged, and going off with him into the gathering dusk, as Jack Rance, the sheriff who has been cheated at cards by Minnie, stands silhouetted and watches them depart, a figure of despondency and an emblem of futility.

A recent New Yorker sidebar deplored the alleged shabbiness of this production. Seeing the opera for the first time, we couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. The first act barroom is convincingly if operatically real (adapted to the oversize precincts of the Metropolitan Opera stage); and there are fight scenes that are good enough, and one especially good moment when a very well-trained stunt man dives from a balcony twelve feet high into the waiting arms of his fellows. Puccini seems to be “into” an early Italian version of western Americana environmental studies here, and he doesn’t quite know how to proceed. The first half-hour of the opera is rather a bore, although the music is very pleasant to listen to. A little sympathetic patter involving the miners’ longing for home hearth and field can go a long way. But all of this is not the fault of the scene designer, Michael Scott, or of del Monaco himself. And the first act picks up quite a bit when we come to the long twosome between Minnie and Jack Johnson, the bandit Ramirrez in disguise.

The second act is set at the site of Minnie’s cabin halfway up the mountain. A fine example of replicated early twentieth-century realism, it shows the interior of the cabin and the surrounding exterior, snow-covered, with steep hills. The cabin has been enhanced somewhat by the addition of a semi-automatic staircase leading to an attic; the staircase can be lowered simply by using a long pole to push up against its release mechanism, whereupon it lowers itself to the cabin floor. It is a handsome device, and it functions flawlessly. Ramirrez, wounded by the fanatical Jack Rance, who has been maintaining a vigil outside the cabin, waiting for his bitter rival to show up, staggers up that staircase; and because the exterior wall of the attic, like that of the main cabin, has been taken away to reveal the interior, we can see Ramirrez there, ready to bleed through the attic floor onto the space beneath, and right onto Jack Rance’s outstretched hand, on cue. He does, and Rance (who somehow also knows how to operate the staircase) lowers the staircase, rushes up and drags the hapless Ramirrez down onto the cabin floor. There, improbably, he lies inert (though thankfully not creating a pool of blood on the floor) while Minnie proposes a do-or-die, winner-take-all game of poker with Jack Rance for possession of the bandit: if Jack Rance wins, he gets both the bandit and Minnie; if she wins, she gets the bandit and Jack Rance loses both of them. And that, of course, is what happens, thanks to the resourceful Minnie’s ability to beat the sheriff at his own game by cheating him out of his prize. Three kings and a pair is the winning hand.

It seems to me that Michael Scott’s setting design here is fully appropriate to the action, inspired by Belasco’s play and appropriated by Puccini. And here it’s appropriate to say something about the brilliant atmospheric lighting designed by Gil Wechsler (whom I knew distantly when we were fellow students at the Yale School of Drama in 1956-57). From the very beginning of the opera, in the barroom, the lighting is a good bit dimmer than what we might have expected. Likewise, the exterior surroundings presented in Act Two are quite dim and shadowy; and even the comparatively brighter light in the interior of Minnie’s cabin still gives the feeling of authentic nighttime illumination, in which the real candle carried from a mantelpiece to a table can be perceived to be the major source of light. The shadowy, dusk-like lighting of the mining town — a broken down one-street place obviously fallen on hard times and very much unlike the homespun prosperity signaled by most film sets of spaghetti Westerns — carries out the same general theme. The whole opera seems to be performed in waning light, if not in actual semidarkness. Given the fact that this is still Belasco and Puccini, this design decision does not by any means cast a pall over the production. But it gives it a convincing sense of, yes, realism instead of what could have degenerated into an all too obvious sense of artificially bright light, which could show what the magnificent equipment of the Metropolitan Opera stage can achieve but which would overshadow (sorry) the idea of the idealized ordinary that grounds the efforts of both dramatist and composer. How this could all be described by the New Yorker as “shabby” remains a puzzle.

And then there are the wonderful voices. In an interview between acts Deborah Voigt was asked about her approach to the role of Minnie. She explained that in her view this is the most difficult of Puccini soprano roles. There are some unprepared-for high C’s, for one thing, and in various other ways the role is musically quite demanding. But in the same breath Voigt added that the character is also demanding because of the many changes that occur for her in the course of the action. And then there is the question of all the props that she has to use, particularly the various firearms and the playing cards, with a prepared “winning hand” that is first privately concealed in her sock, and then is put into play while Jack Vance, at her urging, rises and retrieves a bottle of whiskey that she has asked for and says she needs a drink from. Voigt ingenuously explained that in most operas it is the mezzo who has to handle the props. Here it is the soprano, that is, the central character, who is clearly not above such things; this adds an element of even greater complexity to the performer’s requirements. It is a positive tribute to Deborah Voigt that she rose to the challenge of these many demands beautifully, while singing in her full and wonderfully accurate and musical voice the mellifluous, rolling melodic lines, replete with pentatonic sequences, lushly supported by that truly wonderful Met orchestra, that are Puccini’s distinctive stock in trade.

The other two major characters, sung by Marcello Giordani and Lucio Gallo, were also all that we needed them to be. Giordani, who is quite capable of all the major Puccini and Verdi tenor-heroes, based his interpretation of the bandit Ramirrez (he explained between acts) on an amalgam of the heroes of all the spaghetti Westerns he had seen in his misspent youth. Gallo, for his part, thought that it was unfair for the representative of justice in the play and in the opera to be cast as the villain who loses the girl. For the moment, he seems to have forgotten that, with a few notable exceptions, a baritone voice is the voice of the villain. This amounts to destiny in Italian opera. Gallo has sung Scarpia in Tosca and assorted other villainous baritone roles and so should have remembered this ineluctable fact. The baritones, of course, are the smart guys who lose out to the cosmic destiny that is the golden heritage of tenors, who are invariably stupid, ill-prepared, and naïve and yet who win the woman in the end. That is, unless it’s the other way around, or works out as some unorthodox variation on it, as in Il Trovatore, where the tenor is an insufferably self-indulgent member of the ruling class and nobody wins.

As we departed West Springfield Cinemas for a dash to Boston for a performance of two more operas, by Stravinsky and Bartok, in concert versions by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we speculated once again about the alleged shabbiness of the setting. How else might the Belasco play and the Puccini opera be staged, if not in this relatively realistic way? A play like Hamlet is timeless and classic enough to survive and thrive on almost any style of setting, whether medieval Scandinavian or modern kabuki, or something else. We now have come to understand that such stylistic treatments are essentially metaphors. Such treatment is even possible with plays that seem completely embedded in their historical moment, like The Cherry Orchard, but it’s considerably more of a stretch. The whole of the Puccini corpus has that kind of embedded quality, it seemed to us. We need the well-rendered verismo details of wintry rooming houses and outdoor cafés of La Bohème. Madama Butterfly is perhaps susceptible of freer treatment, but the general need for a recognized historical moment remains.

All of this is of course partly a function of our sense of our own historical moment. We are as of this month eleven years into a new century, and we are still just getting used to referring to something “twentieth century” as other, now officially distant from us and perceptibly different. There may come a time when Puccini operas can be staged, perhaps by some adventurous latter-day Peter Sellars, in some bleak, ice-bound Arctic zone, some heartless high-rise Los Angeles office building and antiseptic city park, some luxuriant central American tropical rain forest, or some equally out-of-range place. But for now, still, we seem to need a place that appears to be one we are confident we know. That Arctic setting might give a whole new meaning to the aria in Bohème “Che gelida manina” (“Your tiny hand is frozen”), but I don’t think we’re quite ready for that just yet.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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