La Fanciulla del West

Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarni, based on the play The Golden Girl of the West by David Belasco
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Eva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie) & Jonas Kaufmann (Johnson) Credit: Ken Howard
The Cast of La Fanciulla del West Credit: Ken Howard

Giacomo Puccini, invited to write an opera for The Metropolitan New York, chose to adapt David Belasco’s The Golden Girl of the West which had been a big success in New York in 1905. Puccini had already had a big success wiith another of Belasco’s plays, Madame Butterfly. La Fanciulla del West premièred at The Met in 1910 and took over 50 curtain calls. Enrico Caruso headed the cast.

The play, set during the Californian Gold Rush in the 1850s, is a good example of the sort of theatre audiences liked at the turn of the century. They liked melodrama and that is what Belasco gave them.

There is a bandit ­redeemed by love; a crooked sheriff who lusts after the heroine; a heroine who gives bible classes to the drunken, brawling miners; a log-cabin cut off by the blizzard; a last minute rescue from the hangman’s noose; and the hero and heroine walking off into the sunset to begin a new life.

The most sensational moment (and it’s very Hardyesque) come when the hero is wounded and hiding in the attic and the blood from his wound seeps through the ceiling onto the heroine’s white nightdress whilst she is pretending to the sheriff she hasn’t seen him.

Minnie (Eva Maria Westbroek), who owns a saloon, has low self-esteem. Fully aware she is uneducated, she thinks she is unimportant and a good-for-nothing. It takes a handsome stranger (Jonas Kaufmann) to change her life around. “You are a pure-hearted good girl,” he says, “and you have the face of an angel.” What girl could resist?

In act two, she gives him shelter only to find out that he is Dick Johnson, the infamous bandit, and he has a whore in tow. Puccini gives the emotional scene the full-blooded commitment the singers need.

Westbroek and Kaufmann have such chemistry they carry it off with elan. Westbroek says that La Fanciulla del West is her favourite opera. I had forgotten how good the opera is. Sadly, it is rarely performed nowadays. I have not seen it in over forty years.

The miners in act one are little boys longing for home and their mummies. They all adore Minnie who mothers them and stops their brawls. They shower her with presents and trust her to look after their gold.

The miners grow up in act three when they are turned into a baying lynch mob who can’t wait to hang Johnson. They allow Kaufmann just two minutes to sing the hit aria and sing gloriously he does with a noose round his neck and every man with a gun pointing it at him. Only Minnie can stop the mob and make them turn their guns on the sheriff (Željko Lučić, excellent).

Act three is genuinely exciting. The orchestra, in excellent form, produces a thrilling sound. The opera deserves to be revived more often.

The great strength of this revival by The Met in 2018 is the total confidence Giancarlo Del Monaco, the director, and Marco Armiliato, the conductor, and the three leads and the chorus all have in the melodrama.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch