Giacomo Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the Golden West”) is a spaghetti opera filled with more clichés than a horse has flies. Based on a popular melodrama by American playwright David Belasco, the opera came into being three years after Puccini saw the play on Broadway. In 1910, the Metropolitan Opera gave the Western potboiler with its gorgeous, post-”Butterfly” music its world premiere on Dec. 10.
Enrico Caruso sang the male lead, Dick Johnson, aka the bandit Ramirez. Emmy Destinn sang the virginal Polka Saloon owner Minnie. Arturo Toscanini conducted, and the composer was in the audience.
With that pedigree, is it any wonder this old-fashioned fantasy has staying power?
At 10:55 a.m. Saturday, The MET Live in HD will present the latest iteration of “Fanciulla” in the Vallecito Room of Fort Lewis College’s Student Union.
The big draw for many opera lovers is the appearance of tenor Jonas Kaufman as Johnson/Ramirez. His third act aria, “Ch’ella mi creda e lontano” (“Let her think I am free and far away”) is sung as he is about to be hanged.
Spoiler alert: Johnson/Ramirez, who has been redeemed by Minnie’s love, is saved. If earlier Met productions are a guide, Minnie (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroekj) may or may not ride in on horseback.
Belasco’s melodrama and Puccini’s adaptation are set in California, 1849-50, in the middle of the Gold Rush. Minnie owns and runs the Polka Saloon, where she serves whiskey and reads the Bible aloud, all while skillfully fending off the miners and Sheriff Jack Rance (bass-baritone Zeliko Lucic – another reason to see this production). Every single man in the opera adores Minnie. That soon includes the bandit Ramirez who strolls in as Dick Johnson. By the end of Act I, Minnie is smitten and invites him to her mountain cabin.
If tradition holds, Minnie and Dick will ride in on horseback at the beginning of Act II. You can anticipate snow, starry skies, the whiff of romance and some surprises.
After intermission, we’re back in town, where angry miners prepare to hang Ramirez. He asks one last favor: Cue the famous aria mentioned above. Minnie’s sudden return with pistols drawn accomplishes an eye-rolling plot twist. She reminds the mob that all the men owe her – big time.
You can guess a Hollywood ending is in the offing, and you won’t be disappointed. Listen for: “Addio mia California.”
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.