my new favorite lost opera

April 14, 2011

While mining through the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music archives in search of songs written about California/L.A./the West, I came across an interesting specimen: “The Girl of the Golden West” written by Giacomo Puccini.

I say interesting for two reasons. One, Puccini is an Italian opera composer (though known for setting his works in exotic locales, America seems either too exotic or not exotic enough for him) and two, the opera world at the time (and European composers in general) had little cultural interest in America’s realization of its manifest destiny. In fact, the song-fueled California boosterism that proliferated popular music throughout the early 20th century came either from those East Coasters who were already enjoying the worry-free, laid-back life in Golden State or from leftover New Yorkers writing about how much they wish they could be out here soaking up the sun and having rendezvous with the sassy dame that got away.

After going through hundreds of boxes of sheet music that reiterated these tourism-feeding trends, La fanciulla del West stuck out like a campy, what-the-fuck thumb. But a brief background check on this seemingly out-of-place opera revealed that its existence is in direct compliance with these ideas as its entire creation rests on America’s early-century attempts to bridge the old world with promotion of the new.

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, Fanciulla was the new opera company’s first world premiere and its performance brought prestige to America’s attempt at high culture. Based on a play by David Belasco (as was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly), however, the three-act opera is full of historical mis-references, cowboy romanticization and examples of Italian verismo as it roams free in America’s Wild West. NPR assures us that it is the only opera “to feature phrases like, ‘Whiskey per tutti!,’ ‘Hello regazzi,’ and to have one of its crucial moments decided by, ‘una partita a poker.'”

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE ARIA FROM FANCIULLA ON NPR

Even though it was resurrected by the Met last December to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its premiere, it remains a splotch on Puccini’s repertoire, fated to live in the shadow of the composer’s larger works such as La Boheme and Tosca. Accepted more for its historical significance than its ability to entertain, Fanciulla remains–as James Taylor wrote in the L.A. Times–“a fascinating artifact from the moment when the old-world art of opera intersected with the new money and new world of America.”

La fanciulla del West is an opera that is a clear product of its place and time, serving the same purpose for Euro-philes as promotional songs like “California Here I Come” served for pop music fans. The outcome of the Met’s commissioned world premiere is a shaky cultural bridge that looks so out of place in the opera world (unless you’re talking about the things composers would do for a buck) that it can only be read as a lost-in-translation addition to the continuing discourse on the American West.

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