Sunday, October 28, 2018
Douglas Messerli | "Going West" (on Puccini's La funciulla del West)
by Douglas Messerli
Guelfo Civinni and Zangarini (libretto, based on the play, The Girl of the Golden West, by David Belasco), Giacomo Puccini (composer) La funciulla del West / 1910, New York, The Metropolitan Opera / the production I saw was the MET live-HD production of Saturday, October 27, 2018
Rather oddly, given Howard’s and my adoration of opera, I had never previously seen a production of Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera, commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera (a production conducted by Arturo Toscanini, with Emmy Destinn as Minnie and Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson), La funciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West). I’d heard many of its pieces on disk and radio, but never actually experienced the production itself.
Howard, who was to accompany me for this MET live-HD production at the theaters in Century City near Beverly Hills, discovered at the last moment that he had committed to a walk-through of the Merion Estes show he had curated (see below) at the Craft and Folk-Art Museum near us. So, Howard returned his ticket, which coincidentally was purchased by a local gallerist friend, Ruth Bochofner, who became, quite by accident and most pleasantly, a replacement friend.
I’d always through about this late-career Puccini opera as a kind of last gasp, followed only by his La rondine and his series of three short operas, also first performed at the Metropolitan in 1918; yet, I now realize this was a terrible misconception.
Supposedly Puccini thought that this David Belasco-based opera was his very best, and almost all of the performers argued for its difficulties with, in the case of Eva-Maria Westbroek, arguing that it was one (if not the) very favorite of works in which she had performed. The personable Italian conductor Marco Armiliato, who directed the score from memory, seemed impassioned about its difficulties and argued how more contemporary, given Puccini’s highly romantically-based operas before this, it was.
I must agree that this work, given the remarkable vocalizations of Westbroek (as Minnie), Jonas Kaufmann (as Dick Johnson), and Željko Lučić (as the sheriff Jack Rance) is something I had never before imagined. And yes, this is definitely not the usual Puccini concoction of beautiful arias and character types as in La bohème, Tosca, or Madama Butterfly—even if, clearly, there is some of the last-named opera’s exoticism that creeps into his vision of Belasco’s wild west—with many quick references to Turnadot—wherein, like the proud queen of Peking, Minnie refuses her love to the minors from all over the world who have gathered in their mad desire for gold to offer her their treasures.
On the surface, in fact, they seem mostly to be good friends, almost making up the foundation, sans wives, of a future civilized community. They gather in the local bar to drink, gamble, and to release some of their aggressions, but their trust in their mother/potential lover, owner of their bar, Minnie, is so very touching that we quickly comprehend why they use the lower shelves of her bar, overseen by the gentle bar-tender, in which to hide their life savings. The local Wells Fargo rider tries to get them to bank their wealth in his company (terribly ironic today given what we know of that institution’s 21st-century actions), but the stagecoach has often been robbed by a local bandit, Ramerrez, and they trust the virginal Minnie as the better banker.
Together they vie for her attentions, Rance believing, just because of his position as a sort-of-law-and-order ex-gambler and heavy drinker, he has the best chance of wooing her. While Sonora (Michael Todd Simpson) believes he might be her favorite, given his status as a kind of group representative of the goldminers. If the various challengers for Minnie’s love sometimes break out in violent confrontations—this is after all the violent West of Hollywood myth which still suffers brawls and violent interchanges when a gambler is found to have been cheating—they seem to be a rather affable group, with even an ability to help out a fellow, very depressed miner, who is desperate to return home to England, by taking up a collection to send him home. We might almost imagine that this will soon be the “well-intentioned” Western town of Hadleyville if only some women were to arrive. What might be the desire for immediate violence could eventually turn into a refusal to get involved if you give these crude believers enough time.
In the meantime, the gun-toting Annie Oakley-like figure of Minnie has to serve as both the vision of law-and-order and the mentor/educator of this rough community, calling them to order, serving up their liquor, and then reading to them from the Bible about King David and other major biblical figures. She’s a tough teacher, scolding them for their lack of memory, but also a loving and caring being who, we later discover, has served as nurse, confessor, and supporter of many of these toughs.
She also, herself, as she later puts it, is a kind of gambler/capitalist, one of them really, who sees herself as a kind of coarse, uneducated woman, who survives through her instincts—without even realizing that it’s truly been her kindness and intellect that has allowed her continued existence. For she is, surprisingly, a reader, having stashed away a complete library in her mountain cabin, reading late into the night, mostly, she admits, love stories—while still rejecting the advances of many of her would-be suitors such as Rance’s with the angry and moving “Laggiù nel Soledad”) with her expression of her attempt to find “true” love.
Minnie is a remarkable combination of a tough Western survivor and a naïve innocent, who goes through her life saved simply because of that impossible combination.
Given this rough-and-tumble world, and Minnie’s and her community’s own mixed emotions, Puccini must have realized that he had to create a different kind of opera. Here, for one of the first times in his music, beautiful wrought musical passages are again and again interrupted, as if almost suggesting a kind of modernist composition, as characters cut across each other’s would-be spiritual expressions. It’s a bit like an early intonation of jazz: the moment a phrase begins, another instrument (in this case an intrusive voice) interrupts to express his or her own viewpoint. People in this opera get in the way, constantly, of all the others, shouting down the arias they may have sung, refusing to hear any of the melodic sentiment of a standard Puccini opera.
So what you get here are wonderful flourishes of romanticism—the wonderful theme of the golden girl herself, the almost Rodgers and Hammerstein early greetings, so somewhat clumsily American-intonations of the miner’s greetings of “hello,” the painful interludes between the past and present when the bandit Dick Johnson and Minnie first meet, recounting their early accidental meeting as almost kids—constantly interrupting one another in their sweet memories, without truly being able to communicate what they both feel is a sudden passion.
Minnie becomes immediately becomes so girlish after inviting Dick to come to her isolated cabin in the sierras, that she does truly remind one of the corny Doris Day film when Annie Oakley tries to dress up for Wild Bill Hitchcock. It’s the trope: suddenly get out of your slickers, put away your gun, and put on a dress (in this case with a rose stuffed into your bosom) to attract the man of your dreams—even if, she quickly discovers, he’s worse that you might even imagine yourself, a simple bandit who has been consorting with a local Mexican whore.
As one of the commentators noted between the acts of this marvelous production, this opera projects the sense of a kind of early movie, with the music and events tumbling over upon one another so quickly that sometimes you can hardly catch your breath. Musical phrases literally pile up only to collapse into more profane chords of everyday commentary. For what seems like hours, a tense three-hand poker game—during which Minnie cheats Rance to escape his desired rape of her and her own attempt to claim the man (just like he was a gold mine she has suddenly discovered and determined to claim)—tamps down all music except for sort of percussional tempo—that is unlike anything you’ve before encountered in Puccini’s previous scores.
Minnie’s final song of love in Act II, after she illegally wins, might almost be perceived as a kind of mad scene out of Strauss’s Elektra or Salome. And Puccini has suddenly moved away from the late 19th century into new territory. Even Westbroek had to admit, during an intermission chat, that she had completely “nailed” it.” It was a moment of opera to remember forever. And the audience went wild.
And, finally, unlike almost any Puccini opera before it, this is not a tragedy. Despite the attempt of the miner’s community to get their revenge, the impossible strong woman at the center of this work, returns, guns in hand, to righteously claim her man escape the local noose, despite all the odds, releasing her lover from their actual legalistically-justified arguments, by reminding these locals of all she has done for them.
In the end, the freed couple walk off together into the rising sun to never return, perhaps moving on to a new southern paradise, I’d like to think, of Santa Barbara or the then-nascent Los Angeles. No snow there, which is what almost got Dick killed in the second act.
I agree, this may be, as Puccini himself believed, his very best opera. Not a work that displays his immense melodic skills at music-making but expresses a kind of new Italian-Wagnerian notion of what opera can become. Had he only lived long enough to continue that transformation!