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.