By Patricia H Kushlis
The Santa Fe Opera’s production of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla Del West) opened the 41st season July 1 with Patricia Racette starring as Minnie. Although Giacomo Puccini considered it his best opera, the reviews at the time were mixed. He composed the opera between 1907 and 1910 and based it on a popular play by American David Belasco which Puccini had seen in New York.
The play and the opera were set in a gold mining camp in 1849 in the “Cloudy Mountains” apocryphally named for California’s Sierra-Nevadas. Minnie was the keeper of the camp’s Polka Saloon yet supposedly as pure as the driven snow and as pious as Jesus. In the opera, but not the play, she was portrayed as a teacher who taught the supposedly illiterate miners not only how to read but also good old fashioned redemption through Bible verses. Her sole rival was Nina Micheltorena, a prostitute from Cachuca who ran the local brothel. Nina, however, never appears on or off stage, but we hear plenty about her nevertheless. (Photo left: Patricia Racette as Minnie, (c) Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera)
The reviews suggest that The Girl of the Golden West was basically ahead of its time perhaps most importantly musically. The major melodies are assigned to the orchestra and they, unlike in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, are also often fragmented, presented in slivers and not necessarily developed beyond the initial phrase or phrases. Two of the three major themes at least are distinctly American folk but neither have California roots. Furthermore, Minnie’s theme is never sung by Minnie but played by the orchestra during her various entrances as well as sung by her lover (Johnson/Ramerrez) near the opera’s conclusion.
Yet if you think of the period in which this opera was written and that Puccini was influenced by Richard Wagner, Debussy and Puccini's contemporary Richard Strauss, Puccini composed The Girl of the Golden West during a time of tremendous artistic and social flux, innovation and impending international turmoil and disintegration. This had been set off by incompetent political leaders harnessing the immense physical power of the industrial revolution. From Russian composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, Spain's early Pablo Picasso, the Russian Avant Garde movement and the soon to come tragedy of World War I which tore Europe and the Middle East apart, it’s easier to understand the context of Puccini’s innovations in this ahead-of-its-time opera.
Art is not created in a vacuum.
Puccini had already broken ground by featuring stories about everyday people so The Girl of the Golden West follows in the same vein but, despite its happy ending, it's the musical fragmentation that most foreshadows the disturbing future. His musical innovations also include use of the whole tone scale as well as the incorporation of a Zuni (New Mexican, not California Native American tribe, located 150 miles west of Albuquerque) melody as one of its three main themes. A second melodic fragment and leitmotiv is the theme of the African-American dance known as “The Cakewalk” which was wildly popular throughout the US at the time Puccini was composing the opera.
Much is made of the redemption concept but in this opera, that really pertains exclusively to men. Either women are apparently not redeemable – as in the case of the never-seen-or-heard Nina - or didn’t need redeeming, as Minnie.
But what seems to be shorted in reviews of the time and has reverberated in some later ones too is the importance and centrality of women in America’s settlement of the West. Minnie’s personification of the independent, take-no-prisoners Western woman is, I would argue, the real theme of this opera. Not only did she carry a gun and knew how to use it, (see photo right (c)Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera 2016) but she also owned property - in her case the Polka and her cabin in the woods – unlike women in the US and elsewhere yet to obtain even the basic right of property ownership let alone the vote.
The letters home and journals that women who took part in the Western migration kept religiously or otherwise detailing their experiences demonstrate this unequivocally.
Minnie, therefore, foreshadows and exemplifies the changing role of women elsewhere in the US and Western Europe in the mid-late nineteenth century and the decades that followed: just think of Susan B Anthony and the suffragettes and their demands for equal rights and the vote, property ownership and racial and sexual equality. This movement had risen during the same time period.
Puccini has told us that he is in love with Minnie -and since he was not in love with his wife – it’s easy to understand how he could be infatuated with someone so very different. Even an imaginary someone. Or perhaps particularly an imaginary someone imbued with spunk, determination, independence of mind and character but who he idealistically holds above the fray.
Books and articles have been written that extol the role of the pioneer women who settled the West. Despite the almost entirely male cast in the Girl of the Golden West (see photo left of bored miners and sheriff Rance (c) Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera 2016) which would have been true to reality in a 1849 California gold mining town, it wasn’t just men who made the journey westward on ships around the Horn, on the wagon trains or ultimately by train although young men were certainly in overabundance in the Gold Rush. The women who went too were young, adventurous, often not particularly virtuous, far fewer than the men and as Minnie shows, afraid of nothing and nobody. They were their own selves. Patricia Racette portrays this spirit remarkably well.
Yet, few of the men who took part in the Gold Rush resembled those portrayed in the opera. Here’s why. California history tells us that the miners were mostly literate, young, and from families of some means. They wrote copious letters home and awaited impatiently for letters from their families – Puccini got that part right - which is why so much is known about them: the Gold Rush itself lasted only about ten years. Belasco, the playwright, came from one of those families so it is surprising that he characterized the miners – this opera’s Greek chorus -the way he did. I too have ancestors from a middle class New England family who came by ship around the Horn to San Francisco, became miners in the Mother Lode’s Angels Camp (best known by Mark Twain’s 1867 “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"), but quickly saw the light and opened the first lumber mill there instead.
In reality, panning for gold was not necessarily the most lucrative occupation in those settlements in the hills east of Sacramento and Stockton where the gold was found. The people who made the money and went on to live well were their suppliers as well as the ranchers and wine growers in the great Central Valley, and the bankers, merchants and builders in the cities particularly San Francisco. In the long run too, the timber industry in the Sierras, the Cascades and along the Pacific coast became a more lucrative and productive way of life for far longer than the short time glitter of gold.
Guns and feuds were certainly part of the scene: representatives of the law were few and far between although the settlements were minimally governed by mayors (alcaldes) and sheriffs – a system which presumably had come from the Spanish. (Miners/vigilantes in front of the US Marshall's building, photo (c) Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera 2016)
I think that one of the most curious – and least true to reality - of the characters in the opera was Dick Johnson/Ramerrez, Minnie’s lover - no fault of tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones. He is described as a Mexican/Spanish bandit, or as the disguised leader of a group of Mexican outlaws from Monterey (population 1,092 in 1850), the old Spanish and Mexican capital of “Alta California.” Johnson/Ramerrez specialized in bank robberies, not murders – and the gang was his only inheritance from his late father. Yet it is hard to understand how Johnson/Ramerrez would have successfully passed as an American named Johnson. How likely is it that he would have had the appearance or the requisite American accent to carry it off? And if he were Spanish from Monterey, as the story tells us, what are the chances that he needed to make a living robbing banks? I'm skeptical. But then this is fiction and it makes a good story.
The opera’s third and final act was set in a redwood forest, but the Santa Fe Opera placed it in the miner's camp. In any event, since the redwoods grow along the coast and the gold was found inland, a redwood forest in California gold country is another stretch of the imagination. The timber in those mountains was principally pine, cedar and spruce; and the giant Sequioas were and are too far south.
Nevertheless, it is rare to have the opportunity to see a production of The Girl of the Golden West although since its centenary in 2010 the opera has received a second wind and is being performed throughout the US and even at Milan’s super critical La Scala which at the time of this opera's debut (which opened, by the way, at New York's Met) was not known for treating Puccini or his operas kindly. (photo right by PHKushlis 5-15-2016)
But that was then and this is now: The Santa Fe Opera performed The Girl of the Golden West beautifully and the SFO’s opera house – in the mountains of northern New Mexico – could not have provided a setting more true to life.
Other References: The Santa Fe Opera 2016 Season Program; Annie J Randall and Rosalind Gray Davis, Puccini and the Girl: History and Reception of The Girl of the Golden West, University of Chicago Press, 2006; Stuart Diamon, "Women and the Winning of the West;" T.H.Watkins, California: An Illustrated History (Updated), New York: American Legacy Press 1983; personal family archives.