Puccini’s Love Letter to the Golden West

On last December 10 evening a lot of wonderful people came together to bring this most special world of melody and intense melodrama to life in a performance of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of its World Premiere at the historic Metropolitan Opera House. 100 years ago, Arturo Toscanini conducted. Emmy Destinn and Caruso were “Minnie” and her heart’s desire, “Dick Johnson” and Gatti-Cazzaza was at the helm of the “yellow brick house on 39th street”, the OLD Met. Everyone was there! Puccini himself was in the audience!
In this historic photo, there they are; the four incredible geniuses. It sort of looks like they were posed yes, but for me it seems in that exact moment of capture, they were caught slightly off guard. The giveaway is what looks like a furtive glance from Gatti-Cazzaza to Puccini. He was balancing some pretty powerful types there, can you imagine? We have Gatti-Cazzaza and then David Balasco, the playwright from whose story Puccini culled his libretto. Breathtaking to see, next to him, is the conductor Arturo Toscanini showing his primary interest being absolutely his good friend, the composer as he fixes his gaze on a languid, slightly mischievous Puccini. What a “Full House” that beats any other hand Minnie might hold hidden!!! I want to hug them all.
As the world of opera tries to turn its back on so much that is wonderful and traditional about itself, this revival is a refreshing action of continuity. Fast forward 100 years. A new house on 65th street. People Pavilions and curved sloping Public Parks dot the landscape and steps themselves (!) welcome you in at least twenty different languages. Plasma screens selling tickets, records and memories are everywhere with color manifesti in the front of the house forecasting the next “good-looking singer” coming to sing for you. The E ride at Disney for classical lovers. Opera at a theater near you, in glowing HD quality. Progress. For some. We are told, “Time marches on!”
The seasons unfold year after year and it seems they like to cast German voices in service of most of the heroines of it’s Italian masterpieces, and true to form, they have given this tremendous honor to my good friend and fabulous Wagnerian and Strauss specialist Debbie Voigt and to my illustrious colleague and great buddy, the Italian powerhouse tenor, Marcello Giordani to be the Puccini Golden Couple. Lucio Gallo, a former bass turned baritone from Italy is the menacing Jack Rance and long time Met Stalwart Dwayne Croft is the Sonora…..
Maestro Nicola Luisotti is the guiding Italian leader of this mighty orchestra and the production is a beautiful, AUTHENTIC, exactly what the composer might have wanted, a postcard of the Wild, Wild West. It is a creation of the director Giancarlo Del Monaco, the son of a great “Dick Johnson”, one of the very best ever to sing the role, Mario Del Monaco.
That night I sent them all my heartfelt best wishes for a warm reception and a rewarding visit with this most magnificent canvas that Puccini drew for us capturing a time of anxious exploration and sacrifice and pioneers living on the edge as best they could far from their families. A wild, unstructured free-for-all free falling time, where survival was often illusive and lonely.
In Minnie’s beautiful heart and vision of her “guys” she grew up with, the men see in her their hopes and dreams personified- as they chip away at the mountains searching for their gold, she chips away at the walls they created for themselves with her little acts of home and faith; educating as best she could and inspiring with passages from a Bible read every day. She is their constant, their unwavering loyal center.
Mr. Tomassini wrote a review for the performance of Emily Pulley’s Minnie in 2004 and was touched as she sang the lines that spoke about the lack of education and that Minnie felt “less than” because of it. He is touched again by the same motif this time round with his favorite Miss Voigt as the Minnie. Puccini built this into the music, the words, and the “feeling”. It is a lasting tribute to Puccini that he can transform two very different Minnie’s at just the same point. In this point I can agree with him, it is a very illuminating part of the score and who she is. Made me think of other such “rilievi”…..
It isn’t only there that I am touched and want to cry as for me there are two other moments even more magical. Johnson has to leave but is struck by her total lack of guile, he too feels she doesn’t know how special she is. “Don’t you know, that you are a very good and pure person and that you have the face of an angel!” Immediately Minnie is shown her path….. one she never even saw coming.
Like water to a parched ground, the sound of that special someone’s voice saying you are indeed pretty and saying you “have the face of an angel!”…. How her heart must have skipped a beat when he said that, with all the gorgeous “atmosphere” created by Puccini….. she can’t even believe it….. it is like something out of her romance novels that she is always reading. “What did he say?” she says incredulous and sighing. The men must have all told her she was lovely. Of course, they gave her bows and lovely things of tribute. But she had never felt what she felt for anyone until she met “Mister Johnson” with all his “book learning” and travel…. she felt she would never get the chance to impress him really as she was a just “una povera fanciulla” with barely “30 dollars of education”.
Instead he lifts her from this dreaded “death” of an existence without love and with those few simple, powerful words her “life” begins. I love that. The second place is at the end, where the real gold she protected for her “miners” was the everyday life she made golden by her faith and her trust and her loyalty. “No one has sinned so much that there isn’t some road open to them for redemption.” That makes me sob. Viva Puccini!!!!! Viva Minnie and her gorgeous message of love and redemption!