Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, WE began Puccini’s World Tour in Nagasaki, Japan. Today, it’s in California during the Gold Rush and Peking, China, in a Middle Age fairyland.

La Fanciulla del West, The Girl of the Golden West, was another opera plot that Puccini scammed from a David Belasco play. The composer saw this one performed in New York City.

Puccini’s seventh opera, La Fanciulla del West was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, with its premiere on December 10, 1910, Arturo Toscanini on the conductor’s podium. The audience loved it; the critics didn’t. Having seen Fanciulla three times at the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD, I loved it.

The story is a California Gold Country adventure/romance, complete with bandit Ramerrez, disguised as Dick Johnson; good-hearted Minnie, owner of the Polka Saloon; and Jack Rance, the not-altogether-pure-hearted sheriff.

Minnie and Jack have a dramatic poker game in Act II.

In his A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman observes, “One wonders whether the first produciton would get by today. Musically and vocally (Toscanini conducted) it must have been terrific with Caruso (Johnson), Destinn (Minnie), and Amato (Rance), but it is known that none of these three could act and would stick firmly to the tradition that opera singers should move as far downstage as they could get, stand with legs braced and apart and belt it out.”

Enrico Caruso portrayed Dick Johnson aka bandit Ramerrez in the premiere of La Fanciulla del West.

The libretto has plenty of Americanisms: miners calling “hello!” all over the place and Johnson being recognized as a stranger because he asks for a whiskey and water.

Puccini sure knew his mining camps.

Turandot cannot really be faulted for being faux Chinoiserie. Puccini’s Peking (as Beijing was known in his day) wasn’t just Chinese, it was a Middle Age fairyland with, as Forman sums it, “The one where a prince avoids decapitation by winning a word game, and nobody sleeps.”

Turandot is the Princess of all China, imperiously cold-hearted, especially about men. You know the type. Calaf, the tenor, of course, is in exile and falls in love with her. This is despite Turandot’s lamentable habit in speed dating: Guys who fail to answer her three riddles lose their heads.

There are also Calaf’s father, an exiled king, and Liù, the father’s female slave, a devoted servant who gets tortured and killed in Act III. (Forman says, “which came out of the Maestro’s own and at times rather nasty imagination.”)

And don’t forget Ping, Pang, and Pong, the “whimsical Privy Councillors.” Forman doesn’t think much of them: “The Pingpongers are a tiresome trio who don’t exist as separate characters but remain as Siamese triplets, not funny nor contributing anything to the plot.”

Of the score, Forman writes, “This is not real Chinese music, as anyone who has been to China can tell, indeed although he [Puccini] is reputed to have used several tunes he heard on a Chinese musical box (!)…. Only the big gong, which produces a noise, not a musical note, sounds truly Chinese.”

It may not be Chinese music, but the Met’s production of Turandot certainly qualifies as Grand Opera.

“The construction of the libretto ran its usual course,” Forman observes. “In March 1924, Puccini had finished everything up to Liù’s death scene. In November, he died of a heart attack. His sketches for the last twenty minutes of Act III were completed by a good competent pro chosen by Toscanini, one Alfano.”

In the April 26, 1926, when Turandot premiered at Milan’s La Scala, Toscanini laid down his baton just before Liù’s Act III death, saying “This opera ends here because at this point the Maestro died.”

Spoiler: Calaf solves the three riddles, poses one of his own, and at the end Turandot melts in his arms.

I like the ending of Fanciulla better: Johnson aka Ramerrez and Minnie walk (or in some ambitious productions) ride off hand in hand. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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