December 6, 2010


When Puccini Rode Tall In the Saddle (CORI ELLISON, 12/03/10, NY Times)

Puccini’s fascination with the American West dated to 1890, when he saw William F. Cody’s touring show in Milan and wrote to his brother, “Buffalo Bill is a group of North Americans with a quantity of Indian redskins and buffaloes that perform splendid shooting tricks and truly represent scenes from the frontier.”

In 1907, during his first trip to New York, Puccini saw “The Girl of the Golden West,” a play by David Belasco, the American playwright, director, producer and designer; Puccini had based an opera on Belasco’s earlier drama “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini’s paralyzing three-year search for a suitable operatic subject was over. Madama Butterfly” had already tapped the natural synergy between Puccini and Belasco, both crowd-pleasing populists who focused more on a sturdy dramatic arc, filled out with realistic detail, than on literary distinction. The setting of “The Girl of the Golden West” fueled Puccini’s ever-deepening absorption with ambience. For him an opera’s setting was not merely background but the defining element of its musical and dramatic nature.

Belasco came by his Western location honestly. His parents, British Jews of Portuguese extraction, were among the original forty-niners who flooded northern California after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. On a visit to a Nevada mining camp the young Belasco heard the unforgettable singing of the minstrel Jake Wallace, on whose lips Puccini would place the plangent ballad that sets and sustains the pervasive air of nostalgia in “La Fanciulla del West.” And Belasco’s father was part of a posse that captured a wounded outlaw whose hiding place in a loft was betrayed by blood dripping into the room below. This slice of life would become one of the most gripping scenes in Puccini’s pioneering spaghetti western.

Belasco’s backyard was as exotic to Puccini as Cio-Cio-San’s Nagasaki or Turandot’s Beijing. In his search for “authentic” musical material, he drew from the kinds of music used in Belasco’s play: polkas, waltzes, ragtime and Latin-American tunes. These he applied with more zeal than precision, just as an American composer might indiscriminately swap a Sicilian tarantella for a Romagnan saltarello.

Puccini also mined American Indian musical material from several early ethnographic collections. These melodies granted him free access to whole-tone scales, with which he had been flirting since his early “Manon Lescaut.” In “Fanciulla” he used their roomy intervals not simply as markers for exoticism but also as aural metaphors for the wide-open spaces of the West.

The ink had barely dried on “Fanciulla” when, in the summer of 1910, Gatti-Casazza called on Puccini to convince him that his new opera should become the Met’s first world premiere. Gatti-Casazza stacked the deck by offering the tenor Enrico Caruso as the male lead and Belasco himself to supervise the production, along with all the creature comforts Puccini could want.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2010 5:56 AM
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