La Fanciulla del West Review – Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Great Golden Adventure

Miners drinking at the Polka

Initially, the notion of Puccini’s Italian operas and the gold rush of 1848 seemed out of sync.  But the more I learned about Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West or Girl of the Golden West, the more Minnie, the heroine, captured of my imagination. She is feisty, strong, principled, and courageous. And as Deborah Voigt, Lyric's Minnie, says, “Minnie is so much fun-and she’s American”.  It took a while for Minnie to arrive in Chicago.  In June, she was in San Francisco at the San Francisco Opera.  In December, she was in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of its opening at the Metropolitan Opera, December 10, 1910, before arriving at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  In an interview in The Wall Street Journal on December 14, 2010, Deborah Voigt commented about Minnie, “I ought to have her down cold by the time I get to Chicago”.  She did.

From http://www.fanciulla, the website dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the opera

How was it that Giacomo Puccini, after completing Manon Lescaut (1893) and Madama Butterfly (1904), came to write La Fanciulla del West, which arrived in 1910?  “The American West” he viewed when he went to see Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West troupe performing throughout Europe in 1890, intrigued him.  A few years later, visiting New York in 1907, he saw the play The Girl of the Golden West, which was written by American Playwright, David Belasco (whose play Madame Butterfly earlier inspired Madama Butterfly) and though he could not understand the words, he followed the action and was impressed by its depiction of the California scene.  The Metropolitan Opera commissioned this opera, and it became the first world premiere that company presented. I can’t imagine the thrill of those who attended the opening in 1910.   Puccini was there, Arturo Toscanini conducted and Enrico Caruso played Dick Johnson/Ramerrez.  And it only received 55 curtain calls!

Act I, Johnson(Marcello Giordani) comes into the Polka Saloon and talks with Minnie (Deborah Voigt)

This story is a great western.  An early “Spaghetti Western”?  There are good guys and bad guys, shooting, a posse and a near hanging.  It is the only full-length Puccini opera with a happy ending.  At the story’s center is Minnie ( Deborah Voigt).  She owns the Polka Saloon and a small cabin.  The miners who come to drink at the saloon adore her, and as the only woman there, she fills many roles including teacher, religious leader, and friend and she also plays cards, pours whiskey, and shoots a gun.  One day a stranger, Dick Johnson ( Marcello Giordani) from Sacramento, comes into the saloon. (I love the sound of  “Johnson from Sacramento” and “Hallo” with an Italian accent). 

Minnie (Deborah Voigt) wants to believe Johnson (Marcello Giordani)

As the only woman, Minnie is the object of interest to the sheriff, Jack Rance,
( Marco Vratogna), who is, incidentally, married, and the miner, Sonora ( Daniel Sutin).  But it is Johnson that she falls in love with.  He turns out to be the bandit, Ramerrez, who is being sought by a posse.  Johnson visits Minnie to have dinner in her cabin, and is shot.  She saves him by cheating at cards in a game with the sheriff, probably the only dishonest thing she has ever done. The posse later catches Ramerrez and is about to hang him when a series of amazing events take place and there is an exciting and happy ending that no one will want to miss.

Act II, Johnson (Marcello Giordani) comes to Minnie's (Deborah Voigt) cabin for dinner

Watching this, I was so caught up in the drama that I could not separate the singing from the acting from the music or sets.  It was so integrated and absorbing, the time just flew.  The music was gorgeous.  It was more modern and required the use of instruments that are original to this work.  The scenic backdrop and costumes by Scott Marr were perfect.  It was fun to see the clever use of the cabin.  The orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, in addition to producing beautiful music, blended with the singing so that it was a delight to the ear. The voices of Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani were beautiful singly and together but blending the voices into the acting was remarkable. Minnie (Deborah Voigt) and Johnson (Marcello Giordani) "made beautiful music together".  They were passionate and compelling, lovely to listen to and to watch.

The noose in Act III, with the mountains behind

Among Puccini's favorite operas, Fanciulla is a treasure not always valued. I agree with Evan Baker's observation in Opera Notes in Lyric's program.  He concludes that, " Fanciulla is one of Puccini's most dramatic operas. It is a masterpiece packed with theatrical events and subtle sounds not heard previously."  This is a golden opportunity to see this delightful, dramatic and beautiful production. Don't miss the chance.
Approximate Running Time: 3 hours
In Italian with projected English translations

Photos (unless otherwise noted) by Dan Rest

Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N. Wacker Drive
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 332-2244

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