Puccini strikes `gold'

`Fanciulla' mines familiar ground

Opera Review

October 07, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Name a composer - besides Stephen Foster - who set the words "Dooda, dooda, dooda, day" to music.

If you answered Giacomo Puccini, you also know that he used them in his La Fanciulla del West, which the Baltimore Opera Company is about to present for the first time.

If that answer comes as a surprise, you may be wondering what an Italian composer could possibly be dooda-dooda-doing with words like that? Even some devoted Puccini fans have wondered, too. Their loyalty often gets tested by this particular, only modestly popular work.

The composer barely knew any English, but knew a good show when he saw one. In 1900, when he caught a performance of David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly, he understood its operatic potential. The same thing happened when he saw that same playwright's The Girl of the Golden West in 1907.

Puccini considered the opera he fashioned out of Belasco's melodrama to be his best. But right after the ecstatically received premiere of Fanciulla (fahn-CHOO-lah) at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with celebrated soprano Emmy Destinn and superstar tenor Enrico Caruso heading the cast, discouraging voices could be heard.

Some questioned whether Puccini had lost his magical touch, had experienced a drying-up of his creative juices, especially his ability to spin out indelible melodies. To this day, such views occasionally surface, along with carping about the opera's plot, set during the California Gold Rush of 1849-1950.

Apparently, some folks have trouble accepting this original spaghetti Western, the sight - and sound - of miners playing cards in the Polka Saloon and pining away for home, when they aren't listening to Bible passages read by tender-hearted bar owner Minnie.

Then there's the tough sheriff, Jack Rance, who lusts for Minnie, especially after she starts falling for a stranger who calls himself Dick Johnson, but is really the Mexican bandit Ramerrez and thoroughly smitten with Minnie, too.

Discovering Johnson's true identity, Rance tracks and wounds the bandit during a wicked snowstorm. The outlaw takes refuge in the attic of Minnie's cabin. When Rance arrives to question Minnie, blood drips onto his hand from the floor above. The game is up.

But wait! Minnie proposes a real game with Rance - poker - winner takes Johnson. Feigning a faint, she slips fresh cards into her hand to trump Rance's two aces and a pair with three aces and a pair (doesn't every deck have five aces?).

Later, Johnson gets caught by a posse and is about to be lynched when Minnie gallops in on her horse, convinces them that Johnson really wants to mend his ways, and rides off with the former bandit, bidding farewell to "my California, lovely Sierra peaks, snows - goodbye."

So what's all the snickering about? OK, so the story isn't exactly Shakespeare. It works, in its own dated way. And, hey, isn't it fun finding a Puccini opera where no one dies?

On purely musical grounds, Fanciulla represents an extraordinary advance for Puccini. The tightly woven score boldly incorporates Debussy's harmonic advances (the use of whole-tone scales adds unexpected flavoring). The orchestration is so brilliant Ravel urged his students to learn from it. And, as always with Puccini, the instincts of a master musical dramatist are felt everywhere.

The opera has a surefire theatricality, thanks to the way the composer builds a scene, using music to intensify actions and emotions. He knows when to spare the horses - the first encounter between Johnson and Minnie unfolds subtly, so that we really feel the pull of their unexpected attraction - and when to let them loose, as in the card game scene and the short, propulsive final act.

Sure, the characters are stereotypes, from the principals to Billy Jackrabbit and his Indian woman Wowkle (the last two say "Ugh" an awful lot), but no more so than in a whole mess of Hollywood Westerns. And these people - even a few of the minor miners - reveal enough of themselves to become quite real, even affecting.

Ultimately, the score is pure Puccini, but the sentiments behind it strike a genuinely American chord, too. From the recurring nostalgic song of roving minstrel Jake Wallace, to the radiant theme that represents Minnie's goodness, to the simple little waltz that brings Minnie and Johnson to the dance floor of the saloon, the opera does exactly what Puccini intended.

"For this drama I have composed music that, I feel sure, reflects the spirit of the American people," he said just before the premiere, "and particularly the strong, vigorous nature of the West. I have never been West, but I have read so much about it that I know it thoroughly and have lived the feelings of my characters so intensely that I believe I have hit upon the correct musical portrayal of them."

In a good production, it's a portrayal that can still hit home, all the dooda-day.

Opera

What: La Fanciulla del West

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8:15 p.m. Oct. 15, 3 p.m. Oct. 17.

Tickets: $37 to $132

Call: 410-727-6000 or visit www.baltimoreopera.com

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