Sunday, September 28, 2014

La Fanciulla del West

Minnie, the protagonist of Puccini's 1910 extravaganza, La Fanciulla del West, makes one of the most dramatic entrances of any operatic heroine.  She is the proprietress of a rough saloon in the California Sierra and the loutish miners are arguing about which of them will enjoy her favors.  Insults are exchanged and guns are drawn.  At this moment, Minnie storms into the scene, dressed like Annie Oakley, and adorned with a big six-shooter displayed in a holster strategically placed directly over her crotch.  She pulls the gun, cocks it, and the saloon goes silent.  Even Rance, the lanky, villainous sheriff, dressed all in black like Jack Palance in Shane, looks alarmed.  A few minutes later, Minnie is leading a bible study in which all the men are docile participants.  Puccini's opera follows the outline of David Belasco's hit play The Girl of the Golden West and involves much card-playing, gunfights and lynchings, even a loyal Indian woman who serves as Minnie's servant.  "Fanciulla" is Italian for "maiden" and the word is often used in connection with the Virgin Mary; but the term is also an archaic word for "wench".  Probably, "Fanciulla" means something like "damsel" and, certainly, Puccini's heroine is a virgin militant, an armed and dangerous wench.  In 25 years of attending opera, I have never seen La Fanciulla del West -- it is a rarity in the repertoire and I have always wondered why the show is not more frequently mounted.  It may be that the opera features an inordinately large male cast -- deputies, posses, and crowds of miners are always noisily entering and leaving the set. (The sole woman is Minnie played creditably in this show by the Welsh soprano, Claire Rutter.)  In productions in New York, the show featured horses, mercifully absent from the Minnesota Opera Company's performance that I saw in St. Paul on September 27, 2014 -- the production did have a wonderful drop-curtain, showing about forty horseman, a mounted posse, standing in two rows across the stage; on one horse, a dead man is slumped, apparently the outcome of their endeavors, and the image, which is painted in delicate sepia, looks like an enlargement of a period postcard.  I didn't have much interest in the show:  summaries of the plot make it seem preachy and implausible -- hokey third-rate Bret Harte.  But, in fact, the opera is extremely impressive and an audience-pleaser.  The show is crammed with action and the principal characters are fascinating.  The music accumulates enormous force as the show proceeds and there are plenty of showy arias, duets, and choruses.  I was surprised at the opera's primordial power -- there's something going on in this show that's far beyond anything Bret Harte was capable of imagining.  Minnie is called a "girl" by the miners, but she's more like a spinster, middle-aged, obscurely withholding herself from the blandishments of Sheriff Rance.  (Rance played by the Wagnerian specialist with the wonderful name Greer Grimsley -- he plays Wotan at the Met -- was made-up and costumed to mimic the vile sheriff in the HBO series Deadwood:  with a scraggly pony tail and a vested black suit, he sits in a wooden chair to the side of the stage and kicks back, balancing like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine.)  Rance wants to force himself upon Minnie but she rejects him, and has, apparently, been rejecting him for years.  A bandit named Rammerez hopes to rob the miners of their gold that they store in a barrel in Minnie's Polka saloon.  The bandit comes to the bar to scout out the place, calling himself Dick Johnson.  He and Minnie have met before and she is in love with him.  When the posse empties the bar to hunt for Remmerez -- they are led by a Wells-Fargo man in a buffalo-skin coat (he is like the assassin in McCabe and Mrs. Miller) -- the bandit tries to rob the place, but desists when he encounters Minnie.  She invites him to her cabin where they are snow-bound and, in a peculiarly realistic scene, attempts to seduce the bandit, while at the same time appearing to virtuously reject him.  They embrace and Rammerez reveals his identity to her.  She repels him, then, in earnest, and as he flees heartbroken into the blizzard, Rance and the Wells Fargo man shoot him.  He staggers back to the cabin, collapses, and, then, Rance and Minnie play poker to decide who will seize the wounded man.  She cheats and wins.  But to no avail; in a puzzling elision, in Act 3, we see that the posse is closing in on Rammerez; they seize him and Rance beats his victim before preparing to lynch him.  (Puccini can always be counted on for gratuitous nastiness, even sadism).  Just as the posse is about to hang the bandit, Minnie appears again, gun drawn.  There is a stand-off, but, in the end, she persuades the miners, to whom she has shown repeated instances of sisterly love, to spare the bandit.  The two lovers depart as dawn breaks over the jagged peaks of the Sierra.  In Puccini's operas, erotic love is symphonic, a kind of thunderous, prolonged calamity, something like an earthquake.  In La Fanciulla, the love scene in the snowbound cottage has an elemental force -- the score is like Siegfried and Brunnhilde's immense duet in Wagner's Siegfried, two behemoths bellowing melodiously at one another.  Indeed, Puccini's music feels Wagnerian; the opera's love theme is an austere eight or nine note motif, subdued and glacial, like the theme from Parsifal.  When Minnie plays poker for possession of the outlaw's unconscious body, the scene has a primal impact -- she shrieks her triumph to the sky.  Later, when Rammerez is about to be hanged, Minnie appears with unearthly yowling, exactly like a Valkyrie, brandishing her phallic revolver -- if they don't free him from the gallows, Minnie promise to shoot first Rammerez and, then, herself and everyone has no doubt that this is not an idle threat.  The scene in which Minnie persuades the miners to defy Rance and forgive the bandit is persuasive and moving because the enormous flood of music makes it plausible, even sacramental.  In general, Puccini's libretti make sense and his operas all have a stark, emotionally compelling thrust.  The Minnesota Opera Company's staging was cheerfully retrograde -- the detailed saloon interior, the cabin in the woods with snow gently falling on its eaves, and the final act, set in the ruins of a mine with a big head-shaft, a hanging tree, and Gothic-looking steeples and minarets of mountain peaks were all Victorian fantasies with considerable allure:  the staging was melodramatic in keeping with the material, probably not remote from the way the opera was premiered in 1910.   In the final moment of the opera, Rance lifts his Winchester and draws a bead on the off-stage lovers.  We know that Rance is a great gunfighter (he looks like Wyatt Earp gone to seed) and that he is incapable of missing.  But as the sun rises over the Sierra peaks and Puccini's music swells to a titanic climax, he is incapable of pulling the trigger.     

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