- Puccini and the Girl: History and Reception of "The Girl of the Golden West"
On the evening of December 10, 1910, New York's glitterati collected at Broadway and 39th Street for the cultural event of the season: the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini's latest opera, La fanciulla del West, at the Metropolitan Opera House. The Vanderbilts, Pierpont Morgans, Guggenheims, and nearly three thousand others braved freezing weather and traffic jams to hear Puccini's new "American opera." Set in a Californian mining town in 1849, La fanciulla tells of a gun-toting bar maiden who wins the heart of a gentleman bandit and teaches a group of miners about the power of religious redemption. At the premiere, the auditorium was decorated with mingled Italian and American flags, heralding a cultural union the opera was thought to represent. It was a good match: Puccini was doubtless relieved to avoid the noisy detractors who had rendered Madama Butterfly's premiere (La Scala, 1904) a spectacular failure, and New Yorkers anticipated their debut as world leaders on the cultural stage. The event was, then, a predictable success. The all-star cast (headed by Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn, and Pasquale Amato, conducted by Arturo Toscanini) enjoyed fifty-five curtain calls; Puccini was called onstage to be presented with a series of ostentatious gifts, including a floral arrangement in the shape of a horseshoe. All this was the happy result of three years of tortured labor; it was quite possibly La fanciulla's finest hour.
This scene is one of many painted by Annie J. Randall and Rosalind Gray Davis in their recent book, which constitutes an important addition to the literature on one of Puccini's least-studied works.1 The "history and reception" of the title encompasses a summary of the opera's plot and musical themes, as well as detailed accounts of the work's creation, its immediate reception in the press, and more recent critical writings. Randall and Davis have, what is more, unearthed a wealth of documents that add substantially to La fanciulla's history (especially its reception), and they supplement their findings with generous illustrations: facsimiles of press items, stills from the first production, Caruso's caricatures of the cast and crew, and more.2 But the book's main selling point—according to its authors—is a collection of twenty-nine letters from Puccini to La fanciulla's librettist Carlo Zangarini, purchased in 1962 by Davis's father and [End Page 112] appearing in print for the first time. All but two are quoted in full in the main text, with the original language reproduced in an appendix.
Interesting though these letters occasionally are, one wonders if readers will find them as important as do the authors. Most are concerned with quotidian matters, often the arrangements for those face-to-face meetings at which the majority of creative decisions must have been made. For the most part, musical details are maddeningly absent (although we do learn that that the third act caused trouble from the beginning, possibly because Puccini and Zangarini departed there most significantly from David Belasco's play). Moreover, the narrative these documents outline is hampered by the fact that the beleaguered Zangarini is a silent partner: Randall and Davis were not able to retrieve the letters he sent to Puccini. Of course, we know that Puccini was intensely controlling of many aspects of his operas, and he emerges from these pages in full complexity: affectionate but insecure, often ill, brilliant but also endlessly manipulative (while affecting a fond joviality and braggadocio towards "Zanga," he would despair openly to his friend Sybil Seligman and the Ricordis about "that pig of a Zangarini"). But, as is so often the case in Puccini studies, and despite the composer's dominance in these pages, we are left entirely in the dark about how he wrote the music.
Nearly all opera is a collaborative endeavor, and La fanciulla is...