Great moments in opera: La Fanciulla del West

September 19, 2011

It is not one of Puccini’s best-known operas, and I had never heard La Fanciulla del West until I sat down with a DVD performance this week. It was written mid-career, following a string of almost unbelievably sure-footed successes — Manon Lescaut, La boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Its 1910 premiere was, appropriately, in America.

Whether because of faltering inspiration, or because Puccini, riding the popular acclaim of his earlier operas, was ready to experiment with something a little less immediately accessible, I am not prepared to say, but La Fanciulla is not built around big, memorable arias, and its charms, which are considerable, are subtler and slighter than is usual with this composer. The singing has at times a conversational quality, and is quite closely integrated into the drama. The orchestration is supple and atmospheric, and does not sound like American country music at all.

The story is set in the American West, during the California goldrush, and takes place in and around an Old West saloon. The central character is Minnie — the only woman in the cast — who presides over the place like a guardian angel, being something of a mother and something of a sweetheart to the rough, discouraged, and lonely men who pass through. She falls in love with an outlaw, Dick Johnson, but their romance hits the rocks when he is discovered by the sheriff — who, not incidentally, is also in love with Minnie. The closing Act of the opera is a dramatic confrontation between a mob, intent on hanging Johnson for his crimes, and Minnie, pleading for mercy and a chance to start again. Remarkably (for Puccini) the opera has a happy ending.

I will add that there is something intrinsically amusing about an opera set in the American West and sung in Italian.

Here is a nice little scene from Act I: the saloon has emptied out and Johnson returns, looking for valuables to steal. He is interrupted by Minnie, who suspects nothing. She explains how content she is with her life on the frontier, but he suggests that perhaps something is missing, the implication being that perhaps he is missing from her life. They creep up to a declaration of love before being interrupted. I like this scene because it builds gently, and it is a good example of the pacing and texture of the opera as a whole. Placido Domingo is Johnson and Barbara Daniels is Minnie, from a Metropolitan Opera production. A dual language libretto is here; this excerpt begins on page 45.

The biggest number in this opera is an Act III aria called “Ch’ella mi creda”. Dick Johnson has been captured and stands at the scaffold preparing for his death. Minnie is, as yet, unaware of his capture, and he begs the crowd never to tell her of his death, but to pretend instead that he escaped. It is a short but passionate aria, splendidly sung here by Placido Domingo:

La Fanciulla del West has a lovely finale, but unfortunately I cannot find a good quality excerpt of it. I’m afraid you’ll just have to go see the whole thing.

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