Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West

Puccini took about 40 years to write 12 operas. His letters reveal an ongoing struggle to find stimulating ideas that evoked, as he once said to his English friend and confidante Sybil Seligman, “the spirit behind the words.” That spirit often manifested itself in a particular place and time—Paris, the Port of Le Havre, the California Sierras, Nagasaki at the turn of the 20th century, Rome in 1800, Florence in 1299. Puccini wanted to make the theatrical experience lifelike, to take his operas and his audiences “on location,” and he suffered deeply until he found the right time and place.

In 1900 in London, inspiration struck like a thunderbolt with the one-act play Madame Butterfly by David Belasco, the brilliant, eccentric, American, clerical collar-wearing playwright, producer, director, and designer. Above all, Puccini was enthralled by the beautiful silent scene known as “Butterfly’s Vigil,” in which changing lights depicted the passage of time from sunset to the next morning as Butterfly awaited her beloved Pinkerton’s return. For Puccini, there was probably no better theatrical experience than this one, where action spoke louder than words. Belasco was surely Puccini’s kindred spirit.

The next inspiration was much harder to come by, and Puccini grappled with personal issues as well as artistic ones. As he wrote to the writer and critic Valentino Soldani in June of 1904, only a few months after the Butterfly premiere, “I’m going through a period of nervousness that stops me even from sleeping, and all this through not finding what I want.” He had considered both comic and sentimental subjects and dismissed the idea of something medieval. He read works by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Maxim Gorky, and Oscar Wilde, rejected them all, and finally turned once again to David Belasco.

In 1907 Puccini came to New York to supervise the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Madama Butterfly, and as always, he went to the theater. He saw not one but two Belasco plays, both set in California: The Girl of the Golden West, starring Blanche Bates, the same actress who had captivated him as the London Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San, and The Rose of the Rancho, with the lovely Frances Starr. Puccini, however, did not experience the epiphany he had had when watching Madame Butterfly for the first time, and he even had a few concerns about both of Belasco’s Wild West ventures. As he wrote to his publisher, Tito Ricordi, on February 18, “The ‘West’ attracts me as a background, but in all the plays that I have seen I have found only some scenes here and there are good. There is never a clear, simple line of development; just a hodgepodge and sometimes in very bad taste and very vieux jeu [old game].”

Eventually, what Puccini himself called the “California disease” took hold. The combination of the (to him) exotic location and a heroine whom he found both “naïve and refreshing” was exactly what he needed to break his dry spell. With a little prodding from Sybil Seligman, who was convinced that he would rediscover his focus through another Belasco play, Puccini asked for The Girl. For the task of translating this distinctly American phenomenon into an Italian opera he turned to Carlo Zangarini, a journalist and poet with an American mother (from Colorado) and a good command of English. Zangarini struggled, Puccini became impatient, and eventually Ricordi brought in Guelfo Civinini, a Tuscan poet.

The libretto was the least of Puccini’s problems, however, when composition was brought to a halt by a scandal that threatened to derail his entire career. In early fall of 1908, his wife Elvira accused him of having an affair with Doria Manfredi, their young maid. Puccini abandoned work on Fanciulla and fled Torre del Lago; he wrote despairingly to Seligman, “The Girl has completely dried up—and God knows when I shall have the courage to take up my work again!” The episode ended badly, with Manfredi committing suicide, and it was a long time before Puccini could resume work on his new opera. Finally, in June of 1910 he signed a contract with the Met. His “American” opera would see the light of day in America. Belasco had agreed to assist with the staging and Arturo Toscanini would conduct.

Met General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza engaged a brilliant international cast, with singers from Eastern Europe (Emmy Destinn) and Italy (Enrico Caruso and Pasquale Amato) as well as France and Germany. The challenge was great, as Belasco later wrote in his memoir, The Theatre Through Its Stage Door: “It was necessary to harmonize this incongruous collection of nationalities and make them appear as Western gold-miners—to create through them an atmosphere of the wild Californian days of 1849.” Despite language differences, the team of Belasco, Puccini, and Toscanini worked together without an interpreter. Spirits were high, and one very fortunate New York Times correspondent who attended the rehearsals jubilantly reported that despite high ticket prices, it had cost him nothing to see “Belasco show Caruso how to kiss a young lady saloonkeeper.” All were thrilled with the score, but Toscanini was concerned about “dead spots” in the acoustics of the old Metropolitan Opera House. According to Gabriele Dotto, former editorial director at Ricordi, he advised Puccini to adjust the orchestration to accommodate those shortcomings. Puccini, who had known and trusted the conductor at least since the 1896 premiere of La Bohème, worked with him to make changes that have remained in the score to this day.

It is impossible to talk about Fanciulla without bringing nature into the discussion. Belasco had captured Puccini’s imagination with his opening tableau, a panorama of the high Sierras featuring Minnie’s cabin and the exterior of the Polka Saloon, all lit up at night. The Fanciulla libretto, clearly following Belasco’s model, begins with a description of a wide valley with mountains in the distance and lovely pine trees surrounding the Polka Saloon, where Sheriff Jack Rance smokes his cigar and ponders the end of another day. Puccini’s musical picture, however, is so vivid that it could be “seen” even in a concert performance. He defines the vast and perilous terrain in the enormous “whoosh” of his opening chords and then dissolves them into the warm, lyric, and sheltering intimacy of the Polka. Such contrasts—of great and small, exterior and interior, gruff and tender, worldly and innocent, dissonant and consonant, sunset and sunrise—lie at the heart of Fanciulla.

Puccini loved to translate space into music. To him the orchestra pit and the wings were simple walls that had no dominion over sound or illusion, as he demonstrated many times: In Act II of Tosca, Scarpia closes a window to shut out the sound of Tosca singing a cantata one floor below. In the Latin Quarter scene of La Bohème the marching guard, heard from afar, becomes louder as it enters the stage and fades gradually as it exits. In Fanciulla there are voices in the distance—the shouts of a posse, the singing of a minstrel—but also the sound of the wind, the snow falling on the roof of Minnie’s cabin, and even several gun shots. At the end of Act I, Minnie is left alone in the Polka Saloon to reflect on the mysterious Mr. Johnson and her first kiss, while an offstage chorus wordlessly mimics the wind in the mountains beyond. In Act II parallel augmented intervals “howl” outside Minnie’s cabin. There is danger, and Johnson/Ramerrez, listening, catlike, for the posse that has tracked him into the woods, believes he hears “sounds like people calling.” But Minnie, with the calm self-possession of a fireside storyteller, assures him it is only the wind.

Puccini uses dissonance and consonance to define extremities of emotion and tension between the miners, the sheriff, and the outlaw, but also between Minnie and the men who want her and love her. Minnie abhors Rance’s sexual overtures, but she longs for Johnson with equal intensity just as much as she wants to protect him. Raw sexuality is dissonant in Puccini’s Wild West, unrequited in the Wagnerian sense, while consonance in the form of singable melody is reserved for moments of the utmost tenderness. Melody summons the gentility from the hearts of characters who have learned to be tough but long for their homes, as seen in the nostalgic lyricism of Jake Wallace’s song, “Che faranno i vecchi miei” (“What are my old folks doing ...?”). Melody is also dance music suitable for courting. The miners sing a lovely waltz on “la la la,” marking the downbeats by stomping their feet on the floor or rapping their knuckles on the table as Johnson sweeps Minnie off her feet. The theme later weaves itself into the most intimate moments between the lovers, especially in Act II, which also contains the most intense scene in the opera.

Minnie, in a virtuosic display of frontier smarts, challenges Rance to a poker game, while pizzicatos in the lower strings suspend time as cards are dealt. The vocal lines are declamatory and little is actually said, much less sung in a traditional way. This is an action scene: if Minnie loses, she will marry Rance. If she wins, Johnson is hers. There is no recourse but to cheat, and Puccini frames her victory cries, “Ah! È mio!” (“He’s mine!”) with a fortissimo explosion from the orchestra. She laughs uncontrollably but collapses weeping as the curtain quickly falls.

Act III begins at dawn in a lonely scene marked by bass ostinatos and flourishes in the horns and clarinets. Johnson is caught and will be strung up. But Minnie comes to the rescue and redeems her man by drawing a pistol on the rowdy would-be lynchers and shaming them into releasing their prisoner. The miners sadly recall the words and music of the minstrel’s song, “La mia mamma, che farà s’io non torno? Quanto piangerà!” (“What will my mother do if I don’t return? She’ll weep so much!”) and a chorus of farewells fades to pianissimo as the happy couple disappears into the sunrise.

The premiere audience applauded the work furiously, and Puccini, Toscanini, and Belasco were given many tributes, including a floral one in the shape of a horseshoe. The critics, though, had mixed reactions. The absence of consensus underscored the newness of the work and stirred the critical imagination. Some declared that Puccini was unable to capture any sense at all of the American West. Others lamented the absence of traditional arias, especially from a composer who had produced so many memorable melodies. They seemed bewildered by the opera’s mix of Straussian dissonance, Debussian whole-tone scales, and fleeting lyricism. Even those who admired the work commented that the composer of La Fanciulla del West seemed not to be the composer of La Bohème. But at least one Italian critic found the work to be “profoundly Puccinian.”

La Fanciulla del West is one of Puccini’s most vivid, passionate, yet intimate, elegant, and tender scores. While it is true that the libretto teems with stereotypes and some might find it tempting to call it a Spaghetti Western, in the end, Fanciulla’s complete and utter sincerity prevails. Puccini himself was pleased, as he told Sybil Seligman, “The Girl has come out, in my opinion, the best opera I have written.”


—Helen M. Greenwald