The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
#3: La fanciulla del West
Who wrote it?
Puccini started to seek an operatic subject after the revision of Madama Butterfly was presented in Brescia with success, after its poor showing in Milan a few months earlier. After contemplating various options he finally alighted on David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West. The librettist was originally the dramatist Carlo Zangarini, but he proved to be a slow worker and Puccini later insisted that a co-librettist Guelfo Civinini be brought on board; the text of the final Act is Civinini’s.
Puccini started composition in 1908, but work on the opera was interrupted by domestic chaos in the Puccini household; nevertheless Fanciulla was premiered in New York at the Metropolitan Opera on 10 December 2010 with a star-studded cast including Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato, a resounding triumph.
What’s it about?
The settings are around a mining camp at Cloudy Mountains in California during the 1849-50 Gold Rush. The Polka is the local bar for the miners, the sheriff Jack Rance, and is run by Minnie. She is very much the darling of the men, some of whom she is teaching to read and introducing them to the Bible. We learn a bandit, Ramirrez, is on the run with a substantial reward on his head. Minnie rejects Rance’s amorous advances as a stranger arrives, introducing himself as Dick Johnson; this prompts a jealous reaction from Rance.
One of Ramirrez’s men is captured and offers to lead the miners to the bandit hideout. He manages to whisper to Johnson, Ramirrez of course, that his gang is ready to assist in robbing the miners. Left alone with Minnie, Johnson accepts her invitation to visit her in her hut and fails to respond to his men’s signals. At Minnie’s hut the pair reminisce over their past meeting – it’s clear they are in love.
Shots are heard and a knock is heard at the door; Rance announces that Johnson is Ramirrez. Minnie then confronts Johnson and orders him to leave. As he does so a shot rings out and he falls wounded. She drags his bleeding body back in and conceals him in her loft. Once again Rance arrives searching for Johnson, but then blood drips from above.
Over the bandit’s slumped body Minnie and Rance bargain. They agree to play the best of three rounds of poker. If Rance wins he gets both Ramirrez and Minnie’s hand; if he loses he must let Johnson escape. They play and Minnie pretends to faint. As Rance is distracted she cheats, using cards concealed in her stockings, and trumps him.
In the final Act a manhunt is underway whilst Rance and Nick (the bartender) muse over Minnie’s infatuation with Johnson. Voices are heard and Johnson is brought in and a lynching is prepared. As Johnson pleads for the men to tell Minnie he has escaped and deserted her rather than tell her of his true fate. Minnie rides in and shields Johnson. As Rance orders the hanging to proceed Minnie pleads with the men, reminding them of all the care and love she has lavished on them. To Rance’s fury they relent. The couple leave to make a fresh start as the miners mourn the loss of their golden girl.
Look out for...
La fanciulla del West is through-composed, rich and varied in its harmonic and orchestral writing, and Puccini makes widespread use of uneven bar-lengths. Both Minnie and Rance make relatively belated appearances and with Minnie’s entry the action really gets going. The card scene is a great and effective piece of melodrama and needs two great singer-actors to pull it off. The role of Minnie is hugely demanding requiring a voice of force up high and yet the ability to sound girlish at times. The singer gets some great moments. The role of Johnson is more conventional if heroic and tender. Jack Rance gets chances for macho snarling and expressing jealousy and frustration.
Who’s in it?
The ever-versatile Eva-Maria Westbroek adds another Puccini heroine to her list of roles at the Met. She’s sung this challenging role in other houses to great acclaim. Jonas Kaufmann (sharing with Yusif Eyvazov) takes on the part of Dick Johnson/Ramirrez – his theatrical gifts, good looks and ability to sing both romantically and heroically will certainly add to the credibility of the story. Željko Lučić sings Jack Rance; always an interesting performer it will be fascinating to see what dramatic subtleties he can bring to bear on this rather bullish character. The production is an old Met favourite by Giancarlo del Monaco, and Marco Armiliato conducts.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on October 27.