Sometimes thought of as a connoisseurs’ opera — and rated by the composer himself as his greatest work — La fanciulla del West stands somewhat apart from the main thrust of Puccini’s output. That is not simply because of its non-existent body-count, though of course Puccini usually killed off his sopranos, and here no one dies (doubly odd for a Western); nor because of the feminine ‘softness’ that prevails in most of his operas, in contrast to the unrelentingly masculine atmosphere here. On closer inspection, Fanciulla is actually very central to his thinking, so much so that (for reasons that are not easy to fathom) Puccini dubbed it his ‘second Bohème’
For one thing, there’s the exotic location — gold rush California was as far away from Italy as old Peking or Nagasaki. As in Turandot or Madama Butterfly, he makes use of folk tunes evoking the locale (American music of course also featured in Butterfly). And for all the religious trappings of Tosca or Suor Angelica, Fanciulla is the opera that shows most clearly Puccini’s Catholic upbringing, for the Christian concept of redemption is strongest here. If there is perhaps nothing overtly Catholic about Minnie herself, or her Bible reading scene, it is interesting that Puccini himself chose the text (from Psalm 51) and gave it more prominence than it has in the Belasco play (the second Belasco he set, after Butterfly) from which the opera is drawn.
Fanciulla is certainly Puccini’s most sophisticated score, and his orchestration (calling for big resources in its full version) shows an awareness of Debussy. It is harmonically advanced, too, and sophisticated in non-musical ways as well. More than any of his other operas, it needs singing-actors—and this despite the great stars, including Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso, who created it at its premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1910.
23 October, 3.30 p.m.
26 October, 3.30 p.m.
30 October, 3.30 p.m.
2 November, 3.30 p.m.