Puccini's Wild West Opera Returns, with Horses

Friday, December 03, 2010

Watch a video about the horses of La Fanciulla del West

Long before the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, Giacomo Puccini wrote a cowboy opera, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). Inspired by the gold mining towns of California, La Fanciulla premiered on Dec. 10, 1910, at the Metropolitan Opera with the great Enrico Caruso leading a cast directed by Arturo Toscanini.

On Monday night, La Fanciulla returns to the Met for the first time since 1993 for a series of performances marking its 100th anniversary. Soprano Deborah Voigt leads a cast that includes tenors Marcello Giordani and Lucio Gallo.

For years La Fanciulla has been neglected in favor of such popular Puccini rivals as La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot. That's partly because it isn't quite as packed with memorable Puccini tunes.

But it also relates to the melodramatic plot. A story of tough gold-rush miners and outlaws, circa 1850, soaring into Italian lyricism can seem silly to modern audiences. And characters like the alcoholic Indian named Billy Jackrabbit and his squaw, Wowkle, can understandably induce squirming.

Yet La Fanciulla also features some ravishing melodies and sumptuous orchestration.

Voigt plays Minnie, a pistol-packing, poker-playing saloon owner, who falls in love with Dick Johnson (Giordano), who is actually the outlaw Ramerrez; Ramerrez is sought by Sheriff Jack Rance (Gallo), who also loves Minnie. The opera is unusual for Puccini in that nobody dies and it has a Hollywood-style happy ending.

"Minnie is one of the most interesting characters that I sing," Voigt told WQXR’s Jeff Spurgeon. “For one thing, she’s an American, and I don’t often have the opportunity to sing an American character. And I look like her. She’s supposed to be blonde with blue eyes. It’s not like a Tosca stretch for me.”

Deborah Voigt (Minnie) and Salvatore Licitra (Dick Johnson)It's no accident that La Fanciulla had its world premiere in the United States. Puccini knew Americans loved cowboy stories, and while he was in New York to supervise the American premiere of Butterfly in 1907, he went to see David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West.

Afterward, he wrote, "The West attracts me as a background, but in all the plays I've seen, I've found only some scenes here and there that are good." Only months later, after reading The Girl in Italian, did he begin work.

The current production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco, features naturalistic Western-style sets, a stagecoach and five horses, one of which Voigt rides in on herself. Minnie makes her first entrance brandishing a shotgun, which she uses to quell a barroom brawl.

“It’s one of the greatest entrances for a soprano of all,” said Voigt. “There’s the phenomenal Puccini music. All the men throwing their hats in the air and saying, ‘Hello Minnie.’ That is just a really great way to start your day.”

Produced by:

Amy Pearl

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Comments [13]

Kevin Scott from Middletown, New York

For the record, La Fanciulla has been sung in English in a new translation by Scott David Marley, and staged by the Berkeley Opera Company a few years back. As a conductor, I have held a long-standing interest in seeing - and performing - an English-language Girl of the Golden West for some of the reasons mentioned in both letters, but also to give the work an authentic feel that has escaped many opera lovers. I know some will say that doing this work in a language other than Italian is blasphemous, but I feel that this opera will work in English, and not detract from Puccini's lyricism nor orchestration.

Nov. 24 2012 02:48 PM
ron from flushing

will view this performance saturday 1-8-11.Looking forward to this production.Happy New Year.

Jan. 02 2011 12:36 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

To the questions Roger raised: 1)It would be interesting once to hear "Fanciulla" in English. Many Americans seem to become self-conscious about cowboys singing in Italian. 2)There are some opera-lovers who think their feelings about a particular performance (or,more likely,performer) are so wonderful that they are compelled to air them on the spot! I say to them that they have earned a spot on Ko-Ko's list in "the Mikado",the one of "society offenders who never would be missed!"

Dec. 21 2010 04:26 PM
Roger from New York City

I was there on Saturday; it was spectacular as it is often the case. I have two questions for the readers. (1) It seem that many are not too thrilled about this opera--at least, I'm beginning to think it the case here in America. Would anyone care to comment? Just to add to that. I read somewhere that Puccini wrote this opera to please his western counterparts [thoughts??] (2) Someone in the middle of the "Minnie, I left my home" aria shouted, "Disastro." I've heard this aria many times and I didn't think it was deserving that. Was it out of place for someone to do that at the Met?

Dec. 20 2010 04:07 PM

Thank you for broadcasting this opera. I am especially fond of this and Madama Butterfly as David Belasco was my great-uncle. I am so glad to be able to listen to WQXR on the internet.

Dec. 18 2010 12:09 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

Just for clarification,Lucio Gallo is a baritone not a tenor. 'La Fanciulla' remains one of the most vivid Met broadcasts ever,the one from 1966 with Dorothy Kirsten and Franco Corelli. I was recuperating in the hospital from an emergency appendectomy on the previous Tuesday. The person in the room with me objected to the music I was playing ("that fancy crap" as he put it) and I told the doctor that unless I was released before the broadcast I would find some place where I would lock myself into and blast the broadcast to my heart's content. The doctor knew me well and so released me on the Saturday morning straight into a blizzard. Before my mother could get me home,she was on strict orders to bring me to my grandmother's house so that she could see for herself that I was OK and then we slogged our way through the storm,arriving home just minutes before the start. The performance was magnificent,just,you might say,what the doctor ordered!

Dec. 16 2010 02:26 PM
WQXR

Harriet,

We're airing this opera on January 8th.

Dec. 14 2010 02:11 PM
Harriet J. Brown from Bayside, NY

When do you plan to broadcast this opera?

Dec. 11 2010 01:59 PM

Michael - Thank you so much for bringing Helen Boatwright's death to my attention. I was acquainted with Helen and her husband, Howard, briefly in the late 1980's. I am embarrassed to say that I really didn't understand the breadth of her career. And, I don't believe I have ever listened to a single recording of her work. Since you wrote this, I've read several lovely obituaries and learned a great deal.

Best - Midge

Dec. 08 2010 04:27 PM
Michael Meltzer

(Not knowing where else to post this) The programming department should take note of the Sunday Times obituary for soprano Helen Boatwright, 94.
Among her other noteworthy accomplishments, she was the first to record the songs of Charles Ives and premiered many of them as well.
Listeners to WQXR would be both edified and pleased to hear some of that output.

Dec. 06 2010 05:05 PM
Janet from Brooklyn

These horses must be pretty much "bomb-proof" - that is, exposed to all manner of potentially frightening phenomena, so that nothing fazes them any more. Note that the bay was a bit leery of going between the stagecoach and the set, and didn't much like the set, the first time, but later he just jogs right past it.

Dec. 06 2010 12:57 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Ah, it ain't over till the fat lady rides ... *wink*

Dec. 06 2010 12:13 PM
Laura from Queens, New York

Aww that's so beautiful. I hope the horses weren't spooked from all the singing and going-ons.

Dec. 06 2010 11:16 AM

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