Italian composer Giacomo Puccini in America. This year marks the first centenary of Puccini’s opera “Madam Butterfly,” based on a play by American playwright David Belasco. Puccini’s next opera based on Belasco’s play “The Girl of the Golden West” premiered in the United States with phenomenal success, but never quite achieved the fame of ”Madam Butterfly”. Zlatica Hoke reports this may be changing.
“La Fanciulla del West”, based on Belasco’s play, is set in a rugged California camp of the Gold Rush era. In the harsh isolation of the mid-nineteenth century gold fields, desperados, dreamers and misfits pursue visions of wealth. Instead of gold, Minnie, a saloonkeeper and Bible teacher and Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson, a notorious Mexican bandit, find love.
With a story line reminiscent of early western movies, but sung in Italian, the opera has often been dubbed the first “spaghetti” western, in reference to Italian-made movies by Sergio Leone. This is unfair, says William Berger, author of books on Verdi and Wagner who is currently writing one on Puccini. “La Fanciulla” is a complex and mature piece of work. “For many, many years a lot of the best conductors sneered at Puccini. They just wanted to do Wagner. That doesn’t fly any more. If you are a genius musician, ‘Fanciulla’ will present a great challenge to you as a conductor,” says Mr. Berger.
Puccini found the subject for his American opera upon a visit to New York in 1907 to attend the Metropolitan Opera premieres of his works “Madam Butterfly” and “Manon Lescaut.” America fell in love with Puccini and Puccini liked America, especially American women, says William Berger: “He wrote to a friend that ‘the women here could make the leaning tower of Pizza stand up straight.’ ”
At that time the composer saw Belasco’s play “The Girl of the Golden West.”
“He liked to see performances of plays even in English, which he did not know a word of, and he thought if it could make an impression on him without him knowing the language, then this was a good operatic subject for him,” says Mr. Berger and adds that Puccini was very impressed with some moments from the play: a blizzard, a poker game, a rescue scene and a strong woman.
The heroine of “ La Fanciulla” may be teaching the Bible, but she will cheat at cards and shoot if necessary to save her man. As they ride off into the sunset, it is clear that Minnie saves Dick Johnson’s soul as well as his life. How different from the tragic Madam Butterfly, Tosca and Mimi.
Puccini returned to New York in 1910 for the world premiere of “La fanciulla del West.” Starring such operatic legends as Enrico Caruso and Emmy Destinn and conducted by Arturo Toscanini, the event was a huge success, unlike the premiere of “Madam Butterfly” six years before in Italy.
The western opera went on to conquer audiences all over the United States and in other countries. But after the first run, it languished in the United States, even though Puccini remained the most popular operatic composer. One reason, says William Berger, is that “La Fanciulla” is difficult to produce. It requires heavier voices used to singing Wagner and yet able to convey Puccini. Another drawback is that it has very few of the short and tuneful arias of other Puccini operas. And finally, the popularity of Hollywood western movies has made the Italian operatic version seem a bit ridiculous to some Americans.
In recent years, however, the Puccini masterpiece has begun to find favor among new generations of opera lovers in this country. William Berger says it is only natural because “La fanciulla del West” is Puccini’s best work: “And if you don’t agree with me, just listen to it until you do.”
Mr. Berger says Puccini has devoted his best work to Americans and it is time they learned to appreciate it.