Opera Scotland

Girl of the Golden West La fanciulla del West; The Girl of the Golden West

Music
Giacomo Puccini (born Lucca, 22 December 1858; died Brussels, 29 November 1924)

Text
Guelfo Civinini & Carlo Zangarini.

Source
Play The Girl of the Golden West (1905) by American dramatist David Belasco (1853-1931).

Premières
First performance: New York (Metropolitan Opera), 10 December 1910.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 29 May 1911.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (King’s Theatre), 30 November 1911.
Scottish Opera première: Edinburgh (Usher Hall), 24 August 2010.

Background
Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, based on a play by Belasco, had, after a sticky start in 1904, become a great success, so it is hardly surprising that, on a visit to New York, Puccini should have attended a performance of Belasco’s latest drama. He immediately realised it would suit him as the subject for his next opera. Composition took a while, due both to his personal troubles at the time and the greater complexity of composition and orchestration he adopted. Belasco had a long theatrical career. Born in California, he worked as a jobbing actor and director both in California and New York. He later wrote many successful plays with highly dramatic subjects, and eventually ran his own theatre in New York.

Main Characters
Minnie (soprano)
Dick Johnson, actually Ramerrez, a bandit (tenor)
Jack Rance, sheriff (baritone)
Nick, a waiter (tenor)
Ashby, Wells Fargo agent (bass)
Jake Wallace, a minstrel (bass)
Sonora, a miner (baritone)

Plot Summary
The opera is set during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. In a mining community, Minnie runs the Polka bar. She is still young, and a spinster who is regarded almost as a surrogate mother by the miners, who are all far from home. Rance’s attention is divided between his love for Minnie and his determination to catch Ramerrez. When the bandit arrives, he is not recognised, and the sheriff and the miners go out to hunt him down. Left alone with him, Minnie agrees to see him later at her cabin.

When Johnson arrives at the cabin, he and Minnie quickly become attracted. Because of a heavy snowfall, he is allowed to stay, and is in the back room when Rance comes in to tell Minnie that Johnson is in fact a dangerous bandit. He resumes his search, and Minnie tells Johnson to leave. However, outside he is quickly shot and wounded, so Minnie hides him in the loft. As Rance interrogates Minnie, Johnson’s position is revealed by blood dripping on to Rance’s hand. Minnie challenges him to a game of poker. If she loses she will marry Rance; if she wins, Ramerrez will go free. Rance agrees, and Minnie wins, though only by cheating. Later, near the miners’ camp, Ramerrez, who has been caught, is about to be hanged. He asks the miners not to tell Minnie of his end. As he is about to die, Minnie rides in to the rescue. She begs the miners to release him, and out of gratitude to her they eventually agree. The couple ride off to a new life.

RECORDINGS

OPUS ARTE (1 DVD) or SONY (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1991

Conductor: Lorin Maazel Director: Jonathan Miller Designer: Stefanos Lazaridis
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Mara Zampieri (Minnie), Placido Domingo (Dick Johnson), Juan Pons (Jack Rance).

Domingo is as reliable as ever in what was always one of his best roles. Juan Pons is a suitably brooding sheriff. The main point of interest in this cast is the Minnie of the striking Italian soprano Mara Zampieri. She had an excellent career in parts like Tosca and Lady Macbeth, and Minnie suits her voice well. She is also a good actress. Juan Pons broods effectively. Jonathan Miller’s production gets a remarkable amount of detail into the acting of the many small roles, giving a genuine sense of community. This is all helped by the costume designs of Sue Blane, who worked at the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre early in her career.

DG (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1977

Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Orchestra of Royal Opera House
Carol Neblett (Minnie), Placido Domingo (Dick Johnson), Sherrill Milnes (Jack Rance).

This recording immortalised the famous Piero Faggioni production at Covent Garden with massive sets by Ken Adam, designer for the James Bond films. Sherrill Milnes only sang on the recording, but all the rest of the cast performed in the stage production. There are many great British based singers in the many smaller roles, such as Robert Lloyd, Gwynne Howell, Francis Egerton, Jonathan Summers, and Tom McDonnell. The recording is excellent, Domingo is on top form, and Carol Neblett gives a lovely performance as Minnie.

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1958
Conductor: Franco Capuana
Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Rome
Renata Tebaldi (Minnie), Mario del Monaco (Dick Johnson), Cornell MacNeil (Jack Rance).

This version dominated the field when it first appeared – for many years it was the only one available. Tebaldi makes a superb Minnie, formidably powerful, but also with an ideal warmth and sweetness of tone. Del Monaco is never particularly subtle, but this is one of his best performances on record. MacNeil is an appropriately menacing sheriff. The recording quality is wonderful for its age.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1958

Conductor: Lovro von Matacic
Orchestra of La Scala, Milan
Birgit Nilsson (Minnie), Joao Gibin (Dick Johnson), Andrea Mongelli (Jack Rance).

It is strange that two recordings should have appeared within months of one another. This one seems to have lost out almost immediately to the famous Tebaldi version, perhaps because the tenor and baritone never became as famous as there rivals. However it is still very enjoyable. Minnie needs a powerful voice, almost a Turandot, and Nilsson also manages a good deal of subtlety. Gibin was a generally reliable tenor who was unduly neglected by the recording companies, and the otherwise forgotten Mongelli also makes a positive impression. This recording is not as atmospheric as the others.

The Cast

Ashby
 Wells Fargo agent
Bello
 a miner
Billy Jackrabbit
 Red Indian
Dick Johnson
 a bandit, real name Ramirrez
Happy
 a miner
Harry
 a miner
Jack Rance
 sheriff
Jake Wallace
 a travelling minstrel
Joe
 a miner
José Castro
 highwayman
Larkens
 a miner
Minnie
 Innkeeper
Nick
 bartender at the 'Polka' saloon
Pony Express rider
 
Sid
 a miner
Sonora
 a miner
Trin
 a miner
Wowkle
 Minnie's Indian woman servant

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