Saturday, January 22, 2011


Radio New Zealand Concert network 
Sunday 23rd of January 2011 at 3.04 - 6.40 pm

PUCCINI: La Fanciulla del West, an opera in three acts
Based on David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, this spaghetti western tells the story of Minnie, an independent frontier woman who runs a tavern (and Bible school!) in a community of gold miners ("forty-niners") in California in the middle of the 19th century. She falls in love with a bandit, Dick Johnson alias Ramerrez, and her love finally saves him from being lynched by the irate miners.
Minnie........................... Deborah Voigt
Dick Johnson................ Marcello Giordani
Jack Rance................... Lucio Gallo
Nick............................. Tony Stevenson
Ashby........................... Keith Miller
Sonora.......................... Dwayne Croft
Trin............................... Hugo Vera
Sid................................ Trevor Scheunemann
Handsome..................... Richard Bernstein
Harry............................ Adam Laurence Herskowitz
Joe................................ Michael Forest
Happy........................... David Crawford
Jim Larkins.................... Edward Parks
Billy Jackrabbit.............. Philip Cokorinos
Wowkle........................ Ginger Costa-Jackson
Jake Wallace................. Oren Gradus
Pony Express rider........ Edward Mout

Puccini's title, La Fanciulla del West, simply means "the girl of the West"; but this is not about cowboys and Amerindians, or conflict between the cowman and the farmer (who should be "frayndz"). Berlasco's original title "The Girl of the Golden West" is better because it brings the gold-rush of 1849 into the picture.

I would think that the most frequently occurring word in the show is not "yellow" (as in "yellow metal") but "Hello" (rhymes with yellow when Italians say it).

This takes me back to 1968, when I saw it in Melbourne, with Australia's much loved tenor Donald Smith from Queensland (have you heard of him?) swaggering about the stage in a role that was first taken by Caruso, with Marcella Reale from the USA as Minnie, and Alan Light as the Sheriff. We also experienced it in Covent Garden, with Placido Domingo the world's best-loved tenor.

The recordings I own have Placido with Carol Neblett and Sherrill Milnes, Zubin Mehta conducting (DGG); Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Cornell Macniel, Franco Capuana (Decca).

I also have a movie of the story (1938), with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, the climax being the wedding, with the good bandit instead of the sheriff, and music by Gus Kahn and Sigmund Romberg.

La Fanciulla del West (Giacomo PUCCINI)
This fascinating opera is one that I have seen twice in a theatre (Melbourne and London).
In this performance recorded in the Stockholm opera house,  just about all the singers are Swedes singing in Italian.
Act One   Inside the Polka Saloon in California during the Gold Rush around 1850
“Hello” is the first word we hear, and it is repeated a hell of a lot of times. In this production the first character we see is Minnie (Nina Stemme), the tavern-keeper, on her horse in the outdoor setting used in all the Westerns (but this is a “spaghetti western”). The boys are not cow-minders but gold-miners.    
  Jack Rance (John Lundgren) the sheriff is in attendance; he wants Minnie to be his wife.
  Jake Wallace, a travelling troubador, is entertaining the customers with a sad song.
  They are all homesick; Jim Larkins from Cornwall is especially so; they take up a collection for him.
  Sid is caught cheating at cards, and Jack Rance stops him being lynched; he pins two cards on Sid to show he is a cheater; he will be shot if he offends again.
  Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent, offers a reward for the capture of Ramerrez and his Mexican bandits.
  Rance proposes a toast to Minnie as his wife-to-be (without proposing to her!). Sonora is jealous and starts a fight; Minnie appears and ends it; she has not agreed to this marriage.
  Joe offers her a posy of flowers; Sonora a red ribbon, the colour of her lips; Harry a blue silk hanky to go with her eyes. Sonora settles his account with a bag of gold. The miners store their gold in a cask at the tavern; Ashby says it would be safer at the Agency.
  Minnie begins her Bible class. They are studying Psalms of David number 51. She asks Harry who David was: he was a king in ancient times, a real hero; when he was a boy he armed himself with the jawbone of an ass and fought a big giant and slew him. (He is confusing Samson with David.) Reading on: Purge me with hyssop and I shall be purified (7). Create a pure heart in my breast (10). The message is: all sinners can be redeemed by love. (This relates to David’s sin with Bathsheba.)
  The Pony Express rider arrives (the postillion). Ashby asks him about a notorious woman named Nina Micheltorena; she will meet him at midnight and lead him to the bandit’s hideout.
  Happy and Bello and Joe read letters from home, while Harry reads a newspaper; all read aloud.
  Nick the bartender reports to Minnie that a man outside is asking for a drink of whisky with water. Outrageous! We drink it neat here.
  Rance offers Minnie a thousand dollars for a kiss; he wants to marry her. What would his wife say? He has left all that behind, he says. But she wants true love, as her parents had (her mother would furtively press her foot on his).
  When the stranger comes in, they find they have already met; she has been longing to see him again. He is Johnson from Sacramento (Aleksandro Antonenko). Rance gets nasty with him and stirs up the miners. Minnie intervenes, and when the men are pacified, Johnson asks her to dance with him;
she protests that she has never danced with a man before; but she does.
  Castro (one of the gang) is brought in; he sees Johnson’s saddle gear and realizes he is there; he offers to lead them to his hiding place, and takes them on a false trail. 
Minnie’s First Kiss
Act 1.2  Minnie and Dick Johnson (actually the bandit Ramerrez) are left alone in the Polka tavern to get better acquainted; they have only met once before. She has not yet given her first kiss to a man, she admits. They are interrupted by Nick; there is a Mexican lurking, who gives a whistle as a signal, but Johnson does not respond to it. She reveals to him that all the miners’ gold is kept in the barrel in the saloon.He assures her it will be safe. He will come to her cabin later and sit by the fire with her.
  She bursts into tears, deploring her lack of education. He comforts her: you are a good-hearted and pure person, and you have an angel’s face. When he has gone, she thinks about his words lovingly. An angel’s face.
Act 2 In Minnie’s cabin, Billy Jackrabbit (seen but not heard in the first act) is confirming his impending marriage to Wowkle, Minnie’s home-help and the mother of their baby (who should be on the stage being rocked in a cradle by Wowkle). Note: their greeting is Ugh. Billy leaves.
  Minnie is preparing for Johnson’s visit, dressing up. He arrives and tells her she looks nice; he tries to kiss her, not noticing Wowkle. Sorry, but you look so beautiful. They sit down at the table to have coffee with biscuits and cream. 
  She asks him why he came to the Polka that evening; it could not have been to see her; perhaps he was on his way to see the notorious Nina Micheltorena (who is going to lead the miners to the bandits’ lair). He changes the subject to her pretty home and her way of life; she mentions the Academy (the school for miners as seen in Act 1).
  He offers to send her some books. She would like some love stories. She says she can not understand how some people’s love only lasts for an hour. He says there are some women a man would gladly spend one hour with, and then die. Really, and how many times have you died?  
  No reply, so she offers him a Havana cigar, which is lit with a candle supplied by Wowkle.
  He makes another lunge at her. He is crushing her roses! Well, take them off.  She still thinks he is going too far too fast, but she dismisses Wowkle.
  Just one kiss, he pleads. She throws herself into his arms, saying Here, it’s yours, ah!
  She thinks he is perfect for her.
  He declares that he loved her the first time he saw her; but it is an impossible dream, He starts to leave, but it is snowing heavily now. Pistol shots are heard. He agrees to remain and never part from her. They are bedding down for the night, separately; but she gets out of her bearskin on the floor and joins him in the bed.
  Nick, Sonora, Ashby the Wells Fargo agent, and Jack Rance the Sheriff come to protect her.
  She now learns that her ‘perfect’ Mr Johnson is Ramerrez. Nina, his woman, had told them. She is shown a photograph of him, and she laughs. When they leave she confronts Dick with her pistol:  he came to the Polka to take the gold! He explains that he inherited a gang of robbers from his father; he has to support his mother and his siblings.
Dick  wants to fly far away with Minnie. Now that she knows his true identity she regrets having given him her first kiss, and throws him out into the snow.  As soon as he steps outside the goldminers shoot him. She drags him inside again. He does not want to stay, but she confesses she still loves him. She pushes him up the ladder into the loft. Jack Rance the Sheriff comes in to arrest Ramerrez, who is nowhere to be seen, so he starts getting amorous. Drops of blood fall on his hand, revealing the whereabouts of the fugitive, and he orders Dick to come down, to face a choice of rope or revolver.  Minnie offers to let a game of poker decide whether Dick will be given to her or to Rance, who will also get her. She hides a winning combination in her stocking and produces it in the third round. She wins, and she is ecstatic. He is mine, all mine!

Act 3 is set in the miners’ camp, but the Swedish production economically returns to the tavern.
   Jack Rance is approached by Nick the barman, who wishes Johnson had never come to disturb their peace. Jack is fuming and fulminating against that accursed dog: he appeared to be mortally wounded, but while they have been freezing in the snow he has been snuggling up with Minnie, being warmed with her breath, kissed, and caressed. What can our Minnie see in that fool? Nick thinks it has to be love, the heaven and hell that everyone falls into sometime, and now it is Minnie’s turn.
   There is a sound of distant voices, and Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, guesses that the brigand has finally been caught; but he calls out to them that he must be taken alive; he goes off to join them.
   Rance says Minnie will have to pay for the tears he has shed night after night; she will weep now.
   But Johnson has escaped again; he knocked one of his pursuers off his horse and took his place. They catch him again. Urrah (Hooray)!  Rance exults: we’ll dangle him from a tree, make him dance.
   Accusations are hurled against Dick, but he denies them all, finally saying he was only ever a robber, not a murderer. They retort that he is a stealer of gold and girls. (They ask Billy to perform the execution.) They will make him dance his last dance, and make him pay for Minnie’s kisses.
   Johnson says he does not care about dying; he will slit his own throat if they let him; but he wants to say something about the lady he loves. Rance speaks, amid the tumult: he has just two more minutes to love her.
   Dick wants them to conceal from Minnie the manner of his death. He now sings what is possibly the only aria in the opera: Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano. Let her believe I am free and far away, leading a new life of redemption. She will wait for me to return, and the days will pass, but I will not return. Minnie, the sole flower of my life, who loved me so well!
   They are stringing him up when Minnie appears, brandishing a revolver (she should come galloping up on her horse; but in this version she has been sitting in her office all the time). She shields her lover with her body, but the men are not prepared to desist; Rance asks them if they are afraid of a petticoat.  Minnie threatens to kill both of them. Sonora is the first to intervene: Leave her alone.
   Minnie reminds them all that she has given her best young years to them in the midst of their fights and troubles, and when she comforted them no one said ‘Enough’ (Basta!), as they are now saying. This man belongs to her and to God; the bandit in him died up there under her roof. Sonora interjects that he robbed them not only of gold but also stole her heart. She replies: good and kind Sonora will be the first to forgive.
   She pleads gently with them, one by one, and puts down her pistol.  She recalls the words of the Bible lesson: there is no sinner to whom the way of redemption is closed. They can not refuse her request. Sonora declares: In the name of every one of us, I give him to you; go Minnie, Goodbye (Addio). Reconciliation has been achieved. All acknowledge sorrowfully that she is leaving: You will never return. (Where is Rance in this farewell scene?) The lovers go off hand in hand: Goodbye my sweet land; Goodbye my California; lovely mountains of the Sierra, and snows, Addio.