By Bennett Owen
The New York Times characterizes it as ‘the original Spaghetti Western.’ Fanciulla del West – The Girl of the Golden West.
When Giacomo Puccini finished his composition he described it to a friend as, “the best opera I have written.” And its debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910, seemed to bear out the maestro’s assessment.
Program for the world premiere of The Girl of the Golden West (La Faciulla del West), 10 December 1910, Metropolitan Opera, New York, James Fuld Collection; 284955. Credit: arttattler.com
Enrico Caruso was cast in the lead role as a road agent with a heart of gold and Emmy Destinn embodied a bible-toting innocent with a talent for poker and a taste for whiskey. Conducted by Toscanini, the opening night audience was so enthralled that the cast returned for an astounding 55 curtain calls.
It was the first opera to be premiered at the Met and was due in large part to the influence of German financier Otto H. Kahn. Puccini had been captivated by the American west since 1890 when he took in a performance of Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring wild west show in Milan.
He based “Fanciulla del West” on a play by David Belasco who had also penned the basis for Puccini’s masterpiece “Madame Butterfly.”
And Belasco knew what he was writing about. His parents were among the original ‘49ers’ of the California gold rush and his father was part of a posse that hung a miscreant captured only because the lawmen saw blood dripping from a loft in a cabin where he was hiding…a scene that becomes the dramatic high point of Puccini’s opera.
By the end of act two, innocent maiden Minnie has fallen in love with the bandit, Johnson, and challenges the Sheriff to a round of poker. If he wins he can kill Johnson and marry her. If she wins the Sheriff must leave them alone. Minnie cheats and wins…
Puccini also filled his opera with uniquely American influences from Indian drumbeats to polkas and waltzes. As for the storyline, it’s summed up vividly at the magnificent website (fanciulla100.org). “It goes against a century’s worth of cinematic myths about the Old West. Instead of a strong, silent cowboy rescuing a helpless heroine, we have an emotionally vulnerable bandit rescued by a gun-toting, poker-playing, independent woman.”
Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn y Pasquale Amato, primer elenco de La Fanciulla del West (Imagen: White Studios/Metropolitan Opera Database | Ed. CP). Credit: camelloparlante
After its premier, the opera lost much of its luster and was panned across Europe … with the exception of Germany where its debut in Berlin garnered rapturous praise from a people obsessed with the western novels of Karl Mai.
And strangely enough, the work is credited with turning American operatic tastes away from Germanic composers in favor of Italian styles…a status quo that remains firmly in place today. Whiskey per tutti??? I’ll drink to that…
Closing Scene from the San Francisco Opera. Credit: operanut