This past Saturday I had the pleasure of seeing the Met Opera Live in HD transmission of Giacomo Puccini’s great opera La Fanciulla del West (“The Girl From the West”). I almost didn’t decide to write a review because, frankly, this opera was completely new to me, I had never even heard of it before and knew nothing of the music or the plot. Which is why I didn’t read the program notes, I wanted to be surprised. I wasn’t sure if there would be a happy ending, or a tragic ending. (Spoiler alert: Happy Ending, thank goodness!)
It’s not just my own ignorance to blame; according to wiki, the opera has not been as popular over the years as it deserves; and is not staged very often. Puccini himself regarded it as one of his best works, though, and many critics agree. Well, my personal favorite Puccini is still Turandot, but I think Fanciulla is running a close second after having seen this production!
Like I said, I don’t have any particular insights, which is why I almost didn’t write a review, even though I thoroughly enjoyed this show. But, since I have been somewhat critical of Met sets in the past, I feel that I at least have to give credit for the Fanciulla staging and the sets, which were marvelous — the Met stagehands built in effect an entire Wild Western town on that stage, just like in a Hollywood set — complete with Minnie’s saloon, the town square, and even her little cabin up on the mountain. It’s really enjoyable, and I urge people to go to New York and see it if they can!
As we learned in the backstage interviews, Puccini staged this opera on commission from the Met, back in 1910! The premier featured Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destin in the lead roles of Dick Johnson and Minnie. Puccini had spent a few years in the U.S. and regarded America as an exotic place to tell a unique story, just like China (“Turandot”) or Japan (“Madame Butterfly”). And Puccini knew a good story when he saw one: He adapted material from American playright David Belasco, for two of his operas: “Madame Butterfly” and “The Girl of the Golden West”. Despite its setting in California, “Girl” is quintessential Italian Grand Opera through and through, complete with larynx-busting arias!
My only (tiny) criticism is that superstar baritone Željko Lučić portrayed Sheriff Jack Rance as if he was Scarpia from Tosca. Just a tad too evil and rapey. You never saw Rance’s softer side, which is why it didn’t ring true at the end, when Rance allows the outlaw to leave in peace, instead of just shooting him in the back on his way out of town. In a backstage interview with Live in HD host Susanna Phillips, Lučić confessed that this was the most difficult part (musically) that he ever had to sing. His voice was amazing as always, and I suspect that this great baritone probably was focused entirely on his instrument; hence, for the character portrayal, maybe just fell back on old Scarpia habits. During his confrontation with Minnie, I kept expecting him at any moment to start belting out: “Va, Tosca!”
“Fanciulla” takes place in a California mining town during the gold rush. Minnie owns the town saloon, which she inherited from her parents. She lives alone in a cabin up on the mountain, with domestic assistance provided by a native American couple Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle (both with small singing roles). Minnie is still young, happy in her solitude and not yet ready to marry, despite the fact that she appears to be the only female in the town (apart from Wowkle) and sought after by every drunken miner who attends her saloon. In her spare time, Minnie is a do-gooder who teaches the miners to read and write, and even gives them lessons in Bible study. She is the female “civilizing force” in this lawless town. Don’t even count on Sheriff Jack Rance, who is a drunkard and a gambler. The main question tormenting the menfolk of this town is: Which one of them, in the end, will Minnie pick as her husband? The answer, of course, is: None of them. She is waiting for real love, and she will know it when she sees it.
On cue, and into this heady brew, rides a mysterious stranger in a black hat, black shirt and black cloak. We learn later that he is the much-sought-after outlaw Ramirez, who heads a gang of Mexican bandits. Their main activity is to rob the Wells Fargo post riders. See, the Wells Fargo Bank coaches are actively transporting bags of gold from the town, and returning with wads of money. Both of which get routinely stolen by Ramirez. The Wells Fargo representative Ashby (sung in this production by bass Matthew Rose) is desperate to capture and hang Ramirez. If they don’t do it soon, all their money will be gone!
When Ramirez strolls cockily into Minnie’s saloon and invites her to dance, it is love at first sight. He goes by the alias of Dick Johnson. Minnie falls hard for him, not realizing that he is the bandit they are all looking for. And who can blame Minnie? Who in this world would not fall for the gorgeous German tenor Jonas Kaufman?
This Shoot-em-up is A Psychological Opera!
Critics have pointed out that “Fanciulla” is more than just an enjoyable cowboy story, featuring horses, outlaws, gold miners, bar-fights and poker games. All of which happen, and were nicely staged in this production. This particular Western is more of a psychological journey, not just for the leads, but the entire ensemble cast. Everybody learns and grows, even Sheriff Rance.
In the standard hero tale, the man must go on a quest, must fight and overcome obstacles to finally be worthy of his girl. In Fanciulla, there is a rather interesting role reversal: It is the girl, Minnie, who must do all the fighting and all the questing, to save, and to finally get, her man. Dick Johnson’s role is more passive, even curiously more like the traditional damsel in distress: He spends much of his time wounded and helpless. It is Minnie who has to perform a desperate act (of cheating at cards) in order to save him (and herself from Rance’s advances). in Act III Dick Johnson stands completely vulnerable with a noose around his neck; and once again, it is the gun-toting Minnie who rides to his rescue. Which, I reckon, is why this story is called “The Girl from the West”, and not “The Outlaw from the West” !
In her cabin love scene with “Dick Johnson”, Minnie explains some of her psychology: She actually had a very happy childhood. Her parents were deeply in love (with each other). Minnie wanted to find that same type of love in her own life. Despite her happy childhood, Minnie is tormented by self-doubts and self-denigration. She confesses to Dick that she just sees herself as a “small, insignificant” person, an undeserving nobody. “You are so perfect,” she tells him. “How could you love a nobody like me?” And Ramirez can only shake his head in disbelief. Minnie is as perfect to him, as he to her. He looks at her and sees her true self: The good, kind person who always takes care of others. And he knows the truth about himself: That he is a lawless criminal who deserves nothing short of hanging. “If you let me go now,” he tells the vigilante mob later, in Act III, “I would just cut my own throat. My life is worthless to me.”
So, what we have here, is two young people, each of whom has low self-esteem and doubts his or her own worth. But in coming together and truly seeing each other, they discover the healing power of love! This is Italian opera, of course, so this means they both have to die…
No! Not this time, not on my [brought to you by Rolex] watch…!
Turns out that Dick Johnson is redeemable. Like Minnie inheriting her parents’ saloon, Ramirez also “inherited” his occupation. As he explains to Minnie, he grew up in a completely normal and law-abiding life. Until just six months ago, when his father died, and he learned exactly what he had inherited: A Mexican gang! And their first order of business being to rob Wells Fargo wagons!
In the end, all turns out happily: Minnie fights for her man. Minnie saves her man. Minnie reforms her man and transforms him into a law-abiding citizen. Dick Johnson swears to live an honest life from now on; he and Minnie march off into the sunset. Rance does not shoot them, although he would like to. It is not specified if Ramirez had to return all that money he stole from the Wells Fargo bank!