Opera: La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West)
Other popular works by this composer: La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Turandot
First performed: 1910
Accessibility Level: Beginner Explorer Aficionado
Setting: The California Gold Rush, 1849
Plot: A female saloon owner falls in love with a man who turns out to be a bandit on the run; she gambles (and cheats!) in a poker game for his freedom
Highlights: Ch’ella mi creda
Recommended audio recording/s: Neblett/Domingo/Milnes
Recommended video recording/s: (none)
Rating (1 to 5):
This is one of those operas (and there are many) that is more interesting to watch than listen to, which doesn’t speak highly of the music. It reminds me of a film score – perfectly adequate to accompany a movie, but not something you’d really want to listen to on its own (in spite of this, movie soundtrack albums continue to sell – I have more than a few). This opera is very different from Puccini’s much better-known works (La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, all of which rank in the top ten most-performed operas worldwide) in that it is “through-composed”: there are no gaps in the music, it just keeps on going. And going – again, like a film score would. There are no convenient pauses for the audience to applaud (not that they’d want to . . . ), and it is not full of show-stopping arias (well, there is one). I don’t have a problem with this, per se, if the music is interesting enough. In this case, it wasn’t. It all sounded kind of the same, and there wasn’t nearly enough variety to hold my interest for long. I found myself web-surfing during it, never a good sign.
This work doesn’t get much respect in the opera world, and it is not performed very often. Some point to the unrefined subject matter, which reminds people too much of Hollywood westerns to be suitable for an opera. That, combined with the lack of variety in the music, the absence of standout tunes, and the fact that it takes place in (gasp!) English-speaking America sets it up for difficulty (it’s not unlike the snobbery of those who disdain operas sung in English, even though this one isn’t). Regardless, there are those who consider it one of Puccini’s best works. I am not one of them. There are no recordings of this opera in English, but you will recognize two words: “Hello!” and “Mr. Johnson,” both of which are used frequently (it’s a bit jarring, interspersed with the Italian). Puccini liked to explore exotic locales in his operas, which he did in both Madama Butterfly (turn-of-the-century Japan) and Turandot (ancient China). Gold-rush era California was no doubt just as exotic way back in 1900. But while he wrote music that borrowed from the cultural setting in Butterfly and Turandot (or, at least, represented his idea of that culture’s music), La fanciulla del West does not conjure up the music of the American West. Again, watching this opera would do a much better job of immersing you in that setting. So, being rather bored with the audio recording, that’s exactly what I did. I watched a fairly recent production (and those are rare!) of this opera, led by the superstar Jonas Kaufmann and Swedish soprano Nina Stemme.
Oh my. This production is very odd, which at least took away my boredom. Did the set and costume designers just throw together (or just plain throw up) everything they could find at a local garage sale? Were they high? This was one of the most bizarre settings I’ve ever seen, and it did absolutely nothing to add to the production – in fact, I spent way too much time trying to figure out what time period and culture they were trying to invoke, if even they knew. There were propaganda posters and other hints of the World War II era, a neon-lit machine of some kind (slots? a jukebox? day-old sandwiches?) that looked like it belonged in Vegas in the fifties, a dangling piece of art that would fit nicely in the seventies – and yet they are all singing about gold-rush era California (circa 1849). I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my comprehension skills until I read some of the reviews. The bad lighting cast way too many odd shadows. As for costumes, the sheriff’s leather uniform made him look more like a motorcycle cop (or perhaps a member of the Village People). Another character was dressed like a ’30s mobster in pinstripes, and Minnie, with her frumpy outfit and Raggedy Ann hair, looked like she was ready for a Saturday morning cleaning out the basement (maybe for that garage sale). What’s more, the two lovers did not seem like a match at all – Minnie looked more like the handsome young Johnson’s mother. Her motley crew of customers donned baseball caps and hardhats and ski caps, but not a cowboy hat was in sight. Johnson was the only one dressed sensibly. Aside from him, the only hint of the “west” of the opera’s title was the decorative scrolling on the sheriff’s shirt. Their mining camp looked like something out of Hogan’s Heroes with its excessive use of metal, and was overall sparse and depressing to look at. The whole ordeal was just a confusing mess, and detracted from the fine singing and excellent orchestra. You’re better off closing your eyes on this one and just listening. Clever (read: stupid) updating of opera settings rarely work well. Opera plots are often bad enough, but yanking them out of their intended context just makes things worse. I half expected this cast of oddly-festooned characters to break into a chorus of “Y.M.C.A.” at the end (and in Italian, no less)!
I’d include the usual highlight excerpts of the opera here, but nothing really stood out to me. There is one famous aria, Ch’ella mi creda (“let her believe”), which is wonderful and more like Puccini’s standard blockbuster fare, so I’ll give you two versions of that. The first is by the great Pavarotti (somewhat poor audio, but still awesome), and the second, a crystal clear rendition by the creamy-voiced Andrea Bocelli. In this aria, Johnson is about to be executed and asks that his killers tell his lover that he escaped instead. This song was popular during WWI among Italian soldiers.
So aside from that, and the interesting fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber was sued for supposedly plagiarizing from this opera when writing “Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera (see below), I don’t have much to recommend here. I’d pass on this one. Sorry, Puccini. Everyone is allowed a dud. Even you.