Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2011  



Puccini's Female California Orpheus


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - January 31, 2011)   On December 10, 1910, a distinguished set of New Yorkers pulled up in front of the Metropolitan Opera House in their horse-drawn carriages and automobiles to attend the world premiere of an opera by the world's most celebrated living opera composer, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Similar to his predecessor Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901), Puccini was about to experience his first world premiere outside of his native Italy. Verdi too had had that experience when he brought his opera I Masnadieri to London in 1847. Like Verdi, who had had the world celebrity soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887) as part of his cast, Puccini too would be having the services of superstar tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) as his hero, Dick Johnson "from Sacramento." With none other than conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) in the pit and celebrated Czech soprano Emma Destinn (1878-1930) as his heroine, Minnie, Puccini was set to have one of the greatest triumphs of his career with his new American opera, La Fanciulla del West, (The Girl of the Golden West). Indeed, the press reported 19 curtain calls for composer, conductor, and vocal artists.

On December 6, 2010, the Metropolitan revived La Fanciulla on close to the hundredth anniversary of its spectacular opening triumph. But by now after 100 years the Met had a new and improved different building at Lincoln Center in which to hold the celebration. To assure that everyone in the country could see it too the Met broadcast the revival as part of its 2010-11 HD series to moviegoers across the country in early January of 2011. While not being quite able to boast of such a superstar-filled cast as graced the world premiere, nevertheless the Met brought us fine singers and an excellent conductor to celebrate the occasion. Heroic soprano Deborah Voigt starred as Minnie, that female California Orpheus who, in the third act, tames the furies, or rather the vengeful miners who are ready to string up the man she loves. The man himself, Dick Johnson, otherwise known as the bandit "Ramirez," was sung by tenor Marcello Giordani, giving his own first career portrayal of Johnson/Ramirez; and baritone Lucio Gallo sang the role of Sheriff Jack Rance, that Scarpia-like character whose love for Minnie obsessed his soul. San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted his first Met performances of the work. Luisotti expressed humility in his backstage interview at having to step into Toscanini's shoes after 100 years though admitting that his early experience as a singer in the chorus of this very opera as a young man prepared him for the occasion. Giancarlo del Monaco (son of Mario, the famous tenor) returned to direct the revival of his 1991 production. Some critics, as I did, felt let down that such an auspicious revival would have to do without an original production.

Fanciulla was Puccini's second opera set in America. His Manon Lescaut of 1892 had the escaped courtesan and her lover expiring in the desert of Louisiana. (Puccini's knowledge of American geography was put sorely to the test in that opera.) To be sure, an American, Lt. Pinkerton, served as villain to a story set in Japan in Madama Butterfly (1904-07). But in Fanciulla all the American details were more accurately portrayed, thanks to the man upon whose play the story was based, David Belasco (1853-1931), "an American theatrical producer, impresario, director and playwright," as Wikipedia terms him. Belasco's parents, Sephardic Jews resident in London, came to San Francisco at the height of the gold rush in 1853. Despite his Jewish heritage Belasco later became known as the "bishop of Broadway" thanks to his severe black outfits. How fitting then given his family history that one of his two most famous plays, The Girl of the Golden West, takes place in the midst of that very gold rush that brought his family to America. Of course, his other most famous play, Madame Butterfly, his dramatization of a short story by John Luther Long (1861-1927), also served as the basis for another of Puccini's very recent triumphs. (Among the visual program notes to which the modern HD viewers were treated there flashed onto the big screen a photograph of the triumvirate itself: Belasco, Toscanini, and Puccini, all looking quite youthful on that auspicious occasion.)

It had been three years before, in 1907, when Puccini had for the first time brought Butterfly to New York. Though the world premiere had taken place in Milan in 1904 the dissatisfaction of both audience and of the composer himself with what had gone on on the stage had led to three years of fixing up and revisions. During Butterfly's first New York run Belasco's Girl was playing on Broadway. As soon as he saw it Puccini knew he had another Belasco-based hit in his hands. And the three years he spent working on Fanciulla were about one year shorter than his usual time to compose an opera. Something about that story spurred him to inspiration and when his work was over the composer told The New York Times in 1910 that he considered Fanciulla "the best of [his] operas." And I agree with him. With all due respect to that composer's other sensationally wonderful operatic masterpieces from Le Villi (1884) to Turandot (1924-26), nevertheless Fanciulla wrenches the heart with more emotion than any other opera I know. True, the final death scenes in La bohème (1896) and Madame Butterfly have put them high in the Puccini pantheon for many of his fans. But I make my claim for La Fanciulla based on 50 years of experience with that and all the other Puccini operas I've been fortunate enough to have performed or witnessed. (The one Puccini opera I have yet to see is Edgar [1889]).

Where to start praising this opera to the degree it deserves but which praise it doesn't usually receive? Perhaps with its musical style. Puccini, progressive that he was, had already begun to appropriate the harmonies and atmospheres of his highly original contemporary Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in Tosca (1900) and Madame Butterfly. As to Puccini and Debussy, before we're much into Fanciulla we get the feeling that we're watching "Pelleas 2," so suffused with Debussy's harmonic style is Puccini's western opera. (Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande had premiered in Paris in 1902.) From the very opening prelude, one of my favorite moments in all opera, the composer commands you to enter his theater with an audaciously startling Debussean dissonance in fortissimo, grabs you by your western vest, swirls you through a foretaste of the "first kiss" music from the second act, and finally splashes you in the face with a healthy dose of ragtime. Imagine that: American ragtime thrown into an opera, that most aristocratic of genres!

Puccini had obviously been immersed in ragtime during his visit to New York at the height of the ragtime craze. Puccini's quote reminds me irresistibly of the old ragtime standard, Ida Emerson's (?-?) and Joseph E. Howard's (1867-1961) ("Howard and Emerson") "Hello! ma baby, Hello! ma honey, Hello! ma ragtime gal" (1899). In recreating his American plot's ambience through that country's own native music Puccini was following one of his favorite stylistics. He had quoted the Japanese song "The Cherry Tree" in Madame Butterfly, and was to quote "La Marseillaise" in the Paris-set Il Tabarro (1917), and to fill Turandot with many a Chinese-sounding theme. But in his ragtime phase Puccini was again paralleling Debussy who in his Children's Corner Suite of 1908 featured Golliwog's Cakewalk, that amusing piano piece, which also demonstrated the fascination of that era's European composers with American ragtime.

(Speaking of Debussy and his magic as appropriated by Puccini, I'll never forget the trance-like state I entered during a Met performance on tour of Butterfly at Northrup auditorium in Minneapolis sometime in the late 1960s. In that performance Butterfly entered the stage for the first time in a shower of Debussean augmented chords. I didn't leave that dream-like state till the first act was over. My good friend, tenor George Shirley, sang Pinkerton. Here it might be appropriate to interject an anecdote on the subject of Butterfly. During President Carter's term in the late 1970s he attended a performance of Butterfly in Washington. Carter had been a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the plot of Butterfly concerned the less than honorable behavior of Lt. Pinkerton of the US navy toward his Japanese bride. Carter went backstage after the performance and spoke to the tenor who had sung Pinkerton. "Young man, you sing very well but you're a disgrace to the US navy!")

But not only Debussy hovers in the background but also that pope of the operatic stage, Richard Wagner (1813-83). (Richard Strauss is sometimes described as an influence but I certainly don't hear any of it. Salome, Strauss's first international triumph, was premiered only in 1905 and I'm not sure Puccini ever saw it early enough to be influenced by it in Fanciulla.) No doubt others have noticed this before as well but I was forcefully struck by Puccini quoting over and over again toward the end of Fanciulla's 2nd act one of Wagner's most famous motives. As Johnson takes refuge in the attic and especially at the very end when Minnie shouts out her card-playing triumph over Rance we hear persistently reiterated the very first four notes that open Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and which notes serve as one of that opera's two most important motives. True, Puccini's very different harmonization of those notes tends to obscure the reference. But it's there, and what a quote, calling forth the magic of love! (Another Debussy parallel: those are the very notes parodied by Debussy in Golliwog.) But that's not the only Wagnerian reference. As the third act of Fanciulla opens we hear in the bass of the orchestra that descending augmented fourth that represents in Wagner's Siegfried the dragon Fafner in his cave. And what is Fafner, one-time giant and now dragon, doing in that cave? Why he's hoarding a stash of gold! And the protecting of the miners' hoard of gold by Minnie in her Polka Saloon is one of the most important psychological motivators in Puccini's opera. I don't think Puccini's two Wagner quotes were mere coincidence.

But borrowing from the operas of others is an old story especially when the borrowee was Puccini himself. Around 1920 Vincent Rose (1880-1944) and Al Jolson (1886-1950) appropriated the melody of "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca, gave it a major key and an upbeat tempo and transformed it into their hit song, Avalon. Ricordi, Puccini's publisher, sued and the judge agreed. Rose and Jolson had to pay. A few decades later John Williams (1932- ) thought he heard something appropriable in Manon Lescaut so he took what later became the theme for Star Wars (1977) from that Puccini work. Also in that more modern era the beautiful waltz melody from the first act of Fanciulla must have floated into Andrew Lloyd Webber's (1948- ) ear so he took the second phrase of it as sung by Johnson and lo, one of the most famous songs from The Phantom of the Opera (1986) was born.

About 50 years ago I was a graduate student in the School of Music of Indiana University (IU). As part of my assistantship I was appointed concertmaster of their opera orchestra. We put on eight different productions that year. "Opera every Saturday night" was their slogan in those days. (Nowadays at IU the number of orchestras has increased from the four of my time there to the eight of today, they have a beautiful new opera theater as well, and more than just Saturday nights are featured.) The next two years I received a fellowship and could give up my orchestral duties. This enabled me to become a part of the audience at IU's new productions. My wife, Ann, and I were in the audience for many an IU opera over the next two years. But by far the operatic experience that stays in our minds most strongly to this day was IU's production of The Girl of the Golden West (everything sung in English then.) We went to that opera four weeks in a row and cried our way through every single performance. Never had an opera so moved us. And that remains true today. We hadn't seen a live production of that opera for almost 50 years so we were curious as to what effect it would have on us in our older years as the Met was about to broadcast it to us. Believe me, the emotions in that opera are even stronger for us now than they were then. None of that story's power has deserted it in the almost half-century since we saw it last.

Subsequent to seeing the opera live in HD with its present cast we pulled out of our archives the telecast of the Met's 1992 production with Placido Domingo, Barbara Daniels (any relation to tenor David Daniels?), and Sherill Milnes. What a surrealistic experience. It had been noted by commentators and critics that the present production has been a revival of that old 1992 production. And boy, was it! Giancarlo del Monaco himself had returned to direct the opera once again just as he had on the tape. From the identical sets and costumes to the identical actions of the characters (such as a miner being tossed from the balcony, a character hitching up his pants on his butt, Minnie playfully poking a miner on the chin, etc., etc.) except for the different lead singers it was like watching a movie for the second time. There must have been a playbook in which all these actions were written down in detail in 1992 that enabled del Monaco to be able to reproduce them action by action in 2011! Indeed such a playbook was described to the HD viewers in a behind-the-scenes interview with the stage managers of the present production. One thing, however, differed between the two productions. The new production cut out a very important scene that we observed on the tape as part of the old production. In the first act at the bar Minnie's Indian helper explains his relationship to Wowkle, Minnie's Indian girl servant. They have a six-month-old child but are not yet married. Minnie insists on a proposal being made that evening. So indeed the proposal is made at the beginning of the second act in the cabin but without the explanatory scene in the first act we don't know what the heck is going on nor what it's all about. The cut scene is very amusing too. Asked to count on his fingers the Indian begins, "One, two, three..." but winds up at, "Jack, Queen, King, Ace," reflecting the usual activities at the Polka Saloon.

Another impressive feature of Fanciulla is its orchestral tone-painting: accompanying Minnie's autobiographical aria in the 2nd act describing her rides into nature amidst the streams and mountains; and the impressionistic music illustrating the beginning of the evening snowfall (reminding us of the snow scene from the third act of La bohème.) Puccini's characters' autobiographical arias continue to uphold the high standard he gave us in La bohème with "Mi chiamano Mimi." Similar arias by Minnie, Rance, and Johnson in turn feature high-note climactic power suddenly erupting out of mundane low-key storytelling and breaking off abruptly. I was especially touched by Minnie's aria that tells us how her parents so loved one another and how she is searching for a man she can also love in the same way. Johnson's 3rd-act aria with its strenuous leaps up and down reminded me of the final heroic duet of Chenier and Maddalena in the 3rd act of Umberto Giordano's (1867-1948) Andrea Chenier (1896).

I had two quibbles with this old-new production. I distinctly remember from the IU days that Minnie makes her grand entrance in the first act, as skillfully led up to as it is by the increasingly chaotic miners' brawl, at the top of the stairs, firing off her rifle to quiet the miners down, and then descends the stairs to join them. Imagine my puzzled disappointment to see Minnie, in this Met production, entering from outside the swinging doors of the Saloon, firing off her rifle off to the right outdoors, and then entering rather anti-climactically. Compared to the head-of-the-stairs staging this staging was a complete non-starter. At any rate this entrance is one of the most glorious moments in this or any other opera. Puccini has supplied a heroic Leitmotiv for Minnie that rivals anything else he ever wrote.

And finally, at the very end of the opera I distinctly remember from the IU production or from somewhere that Dick and Minnie, instead of leaving the stage for the last time on foot with arms draped around the other's shoulders, they both exit the story in true western fashion, saying goodbye to their beloved beautiful California, each riding on horseback into the western sun as befits all true westerns. Strolling out at ground level just doesn't cut it.

Fanciulla's emotional power is paralleled uncannily in a play by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet (1909). This play, which was being written at about the same time as Fanciulla, is in one act, is likewise set in the American Wild West, and is Shaw's only play featuring that locale. Previously he had set The Devil's Disciple near Saratoga, NY, during the American Revolution. But these two were the only plays he ever set in America (out of the about 55 he wrote over the course of his lengthy career). The effect of American tales on European creative artists is a long one. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is said to have had copies of Fenimore Cooper's (1789-1851) novels by his bedside. A few years after Posnet Shaw and his companions G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), William Archer (1856-1924), and others dressed themselves up as cowboys and shot a home movie of the event. Shaw subtitled Posnet "A sermon in crude melodrama." And indeed the melodrama of horse thieves, town prostitutes, hanging judges, and a vengeful posse so typical of the old-fashioned American stage (and later movie) west certainly finds its echo in Belasco's drama quite startlingly. And like Belasco's play, Posnet too found musicalization, albeit some 70 years later.

In 1983 Vincent Dowling, erstwhile Abbey Theatre actor and then artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland (where Tom Hanks got his start) commissioned composer Skip Kennon (whose Herringbone had been presented off-Broadway the previous year) and librettist Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, Harvey Milk (opera), The Grapes of Wrath (opera), Finding Neverland) to turn the one act Posnet into a two act musical which they named Blanco!. They succeeded brilliantly. I traveled from Baltimore to Cleveland to see that world premiere and was very glad I did. With satirical irony they had turned Shaw's play into something Weill and Brecht might have turned out if they instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein had written Oklahoma! (1943). Sadly, due to copyright and royalty disagreements among the principals, Blanco! has never been seen since, though it certainly should be. Perhaps someone can persuade Dowling and the other principals to revive it some day.

In the course of the play, Blanco, like Dick Johnson, discovers he too has a conscience, and turns from being a bandit to a life that praises God and his influence over men. Dick Johnson's epiphany comes through his love of Minnie but no love interest is involved in Blanco's conversion. On the contrary, not romantic love for a woman but Blanco's unwillingness to see another's life lost if he himself can offer up his own life instead even against his own will. Blanco experiences in Posnet that very same altruistic impulse, which demanded of Dick Dudgeon in The Devil's Disciple that he take Pastor Anderson's place to be led off for hanging by the British occupiers. Mrs. Anderson thinks he made this sacrifice because he loved her. But Dudgeon specifically denies this. Only the depths of his conscience made him do it. That's why The Devil's Disciple was called by Shaw a "Play for Puritans" rather than for worshippers of romantic love. Of course, this meme of self-sacrifice is lifted bodily from Charles Dickens's (1812-1870) A Tale of Two Cities (1859) in which Sidney Carton goes to the guillotine in the place of another. Shaw was enamored of Dickens and tried to translate Dickens's characters onto the stage whenever he could.

The hanging scene in the third act of Fanciulla is echoed in the trial scene that concludes Posnet. Johnson is to be strung up for his general banditry while Blanco is to be strung up for his stealing a horse. Like Johnson, saved by Minnie's pleadings, Blanco too is saved by a woman: Feemy, the town prostitute. Feemy insists (falsely) that Blanco was fully occupied with her during the time he allegedly stole that horse (which he actually did). On her perjured testimony Blanco is adjudged innocent and as a free man he delivers his concluding peroration to the audience. In this final speech Blanco describes his conversion from a proudly God-defying blackguard (much as Dick Dudgeon took pride in being called "The Devil's Disciple") into a man praising God for helping him find his own conscience at last. Blanco addressed God in such familiar terms in this speech that the public censor of plays denied Posnet a license to be performed in any theater on the grounds of blasphemy. There was only one city in the British Empire that was out of the reach of the censor: Dublin. So, under the sponsorship of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and Lady Gregory (1852-1932), the directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Posnet was allowed to be given its world premiere at that theater on August 25, 1909. The self-exiled James Joyce (1882-1941) traveled from Milan to review the premiere for his journal the Corriere della Sera. He didn't like it. [ed. correction added June 12, 2011: James Joyce traveled from Trieste (not Milan) and the name of his journal was Piccolo della Sera (not Corriere della Sera).]

Instead of finding the love of his life as Johnson found Minnie in Fanciulla, what was this epiphanal event in Blanco's life that converted him into a man of God? As Blanco explained it to the rabid posse that finally caught up with him as he sat dazedly beside the road with no horse to be seen anywhere, he was making an easy escape on his stolen horse when suddenly he came upon a woman walking with a dying baby in her arms. The woman begged him for his horse so that she might transport her dying baby to a doctor and medical attention somewhere to save her child's life. Blanco was astonished to find himself climbing down from that horse and giving it to the mysterious lady in full knowledge that it meant the hangman's noose for him when the posse finally caught up with him. Suddenly it was God who surprised and caught up with him and the conscience that he had been proudly suppressing all those bandit years overwhelmed his need to preserve his very life.

I am unable even to tell this story to anyone without weeping. To me this is Shaw's most affecting and important play, brief and obscure as it is compared to his much better known works such as Arms and the Man (1894), Candida (1895), and Pygmalion (1914). This is the same strong emotion I feel when I experience the homesickness of the miners as sung by the camp balladeer in the first act of Fanciulla as well as the miners' conversion to forgiveness through love of Minnie in the third. Shaw's plays are all about conversions, and Blanco's is truly one of the great ones.

In contrast to the long history of chivalric men saving women from death or "worse than death" from the Middle Ages troubadours down through Wagner's Lohengrin (1850) to the heroes of 19th-century melodrama saving their heroines from having to pay the rent, Minnie was perhaps the last of a long line of romantic heroic women saving wounded, conscience-stricken, or politically-imprisoned men from captivity, helplessness, or death. The earliest such operatic heroine I can recall is Handel's (1685-1758) Rodelinda (1719) after Corneille's (1606-1684) Pertharite (1652). Rodelinda saves her self-exiled and presumed dead husband and restores him to his rightful throne complete with dungeon scene eerily prescient of Beethoven's Fidelio (1806-14) some 90 years later. Then there was Iphigenia in Gluck's (1714-87) Iphegenie en Tauride (1779-81) who saves her long-lost brother Orestes from execution by her fellow Scythians. There followed the above-mentioned Fidelio in which politically imprisoned Florestan is liberated by his heroic wife, Leonore.

Wagner raised the genre a higher philosophical notch when he had Senta actually give up her own life to save The Flying Dutchman (1843) from his curse of immortality. Kundry too plays a similar role in Parsifal (1882), though she becomes converted herself rather than dying. And finally, Minnie, Puccini's California Orpheus. Soon after Fanciulla, women in society underwent those political and social transformations that removed them from their romantic pedestals once and for all. No longer was there any such feminine literary-operatic heroism anymore, either in the flappers of the 1920s nor from the ladies of our own 21st-century days.


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Published January 31, 2011