The Girl of the Golden West

In Italian with English Captions

About the Composer


Giacomo Puccini was born in 1858, during the glory days of Italian opera. When Puccini died in 1924, the world was a different place; fascism was taking root in the young nation of Italy, America was emerging as the world’s most powerful nation, and motion pictures were replacing opera as the dominant art form in our culture. The many-faceted career of this last great Italian opera composer reflected the multitudinous changes taking place in the world around him.

Although Puccini came from a long line of composers, at first it looked like he wouldn’t amount to much. He was a terrible student: lazy, always bored, easily distracted, and in his final year of high school he flunked out. But Puccini was determined to become a composer and to make some money at it. His father had died when he was five years old, and as a boy Puccini (and his six sisters) had felt the bite of poverty. Puccini saw a performance of Verdi’s Aida when he was 18 and decided that he would become the next Verdi.

He applied himself diligently to the study of music, earning a diploma from the Institute of Music in his hometown of Lucca and eventually graduating with honors from the Conservatory in Milan. During his years in Milan, young Puccini made many important connections and wrote two operas. He was only one of a handful of young composers all hoping to inherit the throne of Giuseppe Verdi, the undisputed king of Italian opera. With the support of the all-powerful music publisher Giulio Ricordi, Puccini emerged victorious from the struggle for succession. The year 1893 saw the premieres of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, and Puccini’s first triumph, Manon Lescaut.

With his earnings from Manon Lescaut, Puccini built himself a villa on the lake at Torre del Lago, a small town near Lucca. He also ran off with Elvira Gemignani, the wife of a childhood friend. Puccini’s stormy relationship with the jealous Elvira was to last until his death. During this period Giulio Ricordi helped Puccini develop a wonderfully productive relationship with a pair of writers, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Giacosa and Illica wrote for Puccini the libretti to three of the most popular operas of all time: La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. These operas use accessible and captivating music to explore three very different worlds: the Bohemian world of starving students in La bohème, the world of historical melodrama in Tosca, and the exotic (to Italians) land of Japan in Madama Butterfly.

In 1907 Puccini was invited to New York to supervise performances of his operas at the Metropolitan Opera Company. Puccini ended up writing an opera for the Metropolitan: La fanciulla del West, a melodramatic tale set in a California mining town. During the First World War he tried his hand at writing a Viennese-style operetta, La rondine. Fascinated by new currents in music and art, Puccini was never content with repeating himself, even at the risk of public approval. As the war ended, he wrote Il trittico, a series of three one-act operas for the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Il tabarro, a gritty story of jealousy and murder among Parisian low-lifes; Suor Angelica, a sentimental story set in a convent and featuring an all-female cast; and Gianni Schicchi, Puccini’s only comedy.

Puccini died while working on his final opera, Turandot, a sadistic and erotic fairy tale set in legendary China. The opera was completed by a friend and first performed a few months after Puccini’s death. Turandot was the last Italian opera to achieve widespread popularity, just as Puccini was the last great composer of Italian opera.

David Belasco and the Western

The Girl of the Golden West began life as a stage play by David Belasco. Belasco was born in San Francisco in 1853 to a Jewish family that had migrated to California from London during the gold rush. His life in the theater began as a child actor in San Francisco. As an adult, he was a tremendous force in American theater: stage manager, designer, producer, playwright, and talent agent. His plays are almost never performed nowadays, although two of them (Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West) have survived as operas by Puccini. Belasco’s historical importance—apart from the many theaters that bear his name—lies in the impact he had on the early cinema.

The plays of Belasco’s theater blend melodrama with realism, and demand splendid visuals and music if the productions are to succeed. In fact, Belasco’s script for The Girl of the Golden West opens with ten pages of stage directions describing in detail the setting, props, music, and lighting effects—which the audience is supposed to notice in the few seconds before the first lines of the play are spoken! Most theaters didn’t (and still don’t) have the technical and financial resources to bring Belasco’s endless wealth of detail to life; but no matter, the cinema picked up where he left off. In fact, he was mentor to Cecil B. DeMille and also influenced D. W. Griffith, two of the most important early film directors. Opera and theater shared the same world of melodramatic realism in Belasco’s day, and that’s the world where the baby art form of cinema grew up.

Westerns, by the way, were among the earliest films. Thomas Edison, father of the motion picture, shot footage of stunts from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1894, and the basics of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era. “Spaghetti Westerns”—westerns produced in Europe, particularly by Italian filmmakers such as Sergio Leone—had their Golden Age in the 1960s, when American filmmakers were less interested in the genre.

As for Belasco’s stage Western The Girl of the Golden West, the play was wildly popular when first produced, at the Belasco Theater in Pittsburgh in 1905. It was written for Blanche Bates, the great actress who had also created Madame Butterfly. Giacomo Puccini first saw the play in New York in 1907, and had it translated into Italian and made into an opera libretto right away. His opera, La fanciulla del West, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1910, with Belasco as stage director and a stellar cast of Italian and American singers. The action is basically the same in play and opera; the only difference is that the one is sung in Italian, the other spoken in English. Alas, opera-goers thus miss out on some of Belasco’s wonderfully melodramatic dialogue:

SONORA (to José Castro): Come on, you oily, garlic-eating, red-peppery, dog-trottin’ sun-baked son of a skunk!

MINNIE: They ain’t one of these men working for themselves alone. The Almighty never put it in no man’s heart to make a beast or pack-horse of himself—except for some woman, or some child. Ain’t it wonderful? Ain’t it wonderful, that instinct, ain’t it? –What a man’ll do when it comes to a woman. Ain’t it wonderful?

WOWKLE: Billy Jackrabbit, p’haps me not stay marry with you for long time. Ugh!

NICK: Love’s like a drink that gits a-holt on you, and you can’t quit—it’s a turn of the head, or a touch of the hands, or it’s a half sort of smile—and you’re doped—doped with a feelin’ like strong liquor runnin’ through your veins—an’ there ain’t nothin’ on earth can break it up, once you’ve got the habit. That’s love. I’ve got it—you’ve got it—the boys’ve got it—the Girl’s got it—the whole damn world’s got it! It’s all the heaven there is on earth, and, in nine cases out of ten, it’s hell.

JOHNSON: Girl, it’s been worth life just to know you. You’ve brought me nearer Heaven. You—to love a man like me!

Puccini’s Women

As Puccini was transforming David Belasco’s Girl of the Golden West into an opera, his personal life was engulfed in tragedy. It began with a car crash: Puccini, an avid sports car enthusiast, was injured in an accident in 1903. He hired a live-in nurse to help him regain his health and kept her on as a maid when he had recovered. The girl’s name was Doria Manfredi; she came from a respectable family in Torre del Lago, where Puccini had his villa. By all accounts, Doria was a hard worker and a gentle, pleasant person.

In 1904, Elvira Gemingnani’s husband died, and Elvira was finally free to marry Puccini. No sooner were they married than Elvira became obsessively jealous. She was suspicious of her husband and the pretty Doria, and one evening, in the summer of 1908, she found the two of them talking near the garden. Elvira accused Doria of having an affair with Puccini; she insulted her, fired her, slandered her in the town, and urged the priest to excommunicate her. Puccini was a well-known womanizer, and many citizens of Torre del Lago believed Elvira. Doria, unable to endure the suspicion and the scandal, took poison and died.

Doria’s family had an autopsy performed, and it turned out the girl was a virgin. They sued Elvira Puccini for defamation of character and won the case. Elvira would have gone to prison had Puccini not paid off the family. At first he wanted a separation from Elvira, but eventually Puccini and his wife were reconciled.

Doria was the real-life embodiment of a type of character all too familiar in the Puccini operas: a beautiful young woman who endures appalling cruelty and then commits suicide. Puccini heroines who kill themselves after psychological torture include Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica (in operas named for them) and Liù in Turandot; Mimì in La bohème dies of tuberculosis before our very eyes, and Manon Lescaut (in the opera of that name) slowly dies of dehydration. Minnie, in The Girl of the Golden West, is one of the few Puccini heroines who survives the end of her opera. She’s also one of Puccini’s greatest characters—clever, brave, fun, loving, good but not a saint, and tough as iron. It’s impossible to imagine Minnie—unlike most of her sisters—killing herself at the end of her opera.

Listening to Puccini

Puccini may be the most popular composer of operas. His Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly are performed constantly, all over the world, and the music of his other operas is no less beloved. In fact, the sound of Puccini—simple, passionate melodies and glorious rivers of sound pouring out of Italian throats—is the sound Americans associate most clearly with opera.

But there’s more to opera than Puccini, and there’s more to Puccini than most Americans might guess. In fact, even though his opera La fanciulla del West takes place in California and premiered in New York, most Americans find Fanciulla takes a little getting used to. It probably comes down to suspension of disbelief, the first duty of any theatergoer. When we attend Madama Butterfly, we agree not to ask the question, “Why are all these Japanese people singing in Italian?” We have to do the same with the Californians of Fanciulla; but since most of us know California better than we know Japan, it’s harder to do.

To Puccini, Cloudy Mountain, California was just as exotic and foreign as Nagasaki. In both cases, he tried to help his audience travel to these distant places in their imaginations by using local music in his scores. Just as we hear several traditional Japanese melodies in Madama Butterfly, so Girl of the Golden West is brimming with American folk music.

“Camptown Ladies” was still under copyright to Stephen Foster when Puccini wrote the opera, so you won’t hear its tune, but you will hear Puccini’s miners singing the words “Dooda, dooda day.” They will all weep with nostalgia when Jake Wallace leads them in a sentimental folk song inspired by Foster’s “Old Dog Tray;” and together the miners, encouraging Minnie and Dick Johnson to dance in the first scene, will hum an insipid 1840s waltz—which will bloom into a beautiful love song as the story unfolds.

These moments of local musical color were originally part of David Belasco’s play. In fact, the opera follows the play so closely, operagoers expecting the traditional structures of Puccinian opera—sweeping arias, love duets, and tear-jerking death scenes—may be disappointed. Puccini simply set the play to music, without trying to rearrange the drama so that it provided opportunities for lyrical expression. There are many ariosos, but no real arias; several love scenes, but no traditional love duets. Instead, Puccini achieves musical unity by using various themes again and again, developing them to fit the changing needs of the story. Thus, Minnie and Dick Johnson’s love theme develops from their waltz; as Ramerrez the bandit, Dick Johnson has a jangling, glitzy theme we first hear at the climax of the overture, and the opera opens with the all-important theme of redemption.

Puccini used recurring themes in all his operas, and Puccini lovers will recognize many other hallmarks of his musical style in Fanciulla. His advanced harmonic language—which features dissonant, or chromatic notes, in a tonal context—was not only fashionable at the time, it provided a template for generations of film composers. (If Fanciulla ever sounds like film music from the ‘40s and ‘50s, remember which came first!) Rhythmically, Puccini is famous for rubato, in which the conductor’s beat is rarely consistent but can speed up or slow down from measure to measure of music. His singers must be great actors as well as expert vocalists, ready to unleash a torrent of emotion expressed in a sudden, thrilling high note. Puccini also knew how to get great musical details from his large orchestra: you’ll hear the wind howling through the snow outside Minnie’s cabin, the plaintive tones of an oboe sounding like a lonely harmonica, the color of the sun rising above the Sierra Mountains, even the drip, drip, drip of Johnson’s blood onto Jack Rance’s hand.

Recommended Recordings

Deutsche Gramophon / Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Minnie: Carol Neblett
Dick Johnson: Plácido Domingo
Jack Rance: Sherrill Milnes

Myto / Conductor: Dimitri Mitropolous
Minnie: Eleanor Steber
Dick Johnson: Mario del Monaco
Jack Rance: Gian Giacomo Guelfi

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