While ruminating about "Madama Butterfly" in these pages the other week, I mentioned that the de facto premiere of the work was not in Italy at all but rather New York, since the David Belasco play originally opened on Herald Square. In the case of "Girl of the Golden West," both the Belasco theatrical piece and the Puccini opera were launched in Manhattan, the latter under Toscanini in 1910.
It is interesting to remember that European audiences of the period largely perceived New York and the Wild West as virtually the same place - the way they thought of Cairo and "Aida." Recent events indicate that this perception has changed little. The "West" of the title - which is given in English rather than Italian - represents more of a state of mind, an emblem of the rugged individualism of the new world, similar in its symbology to the orchestral essay "Ameriques" by Edgard Varese, than a geographical location.
Compare Puccini's Indians to those of another Italian composer, Ferruccio Busoni, who visited in the West in the same year that "Girl of the Golden West" was launched. In the piano suite "Red Indian Diary," published in 1915, Busoni expresses the tragically human side of these displaced peoples, whereas, for Puccini, they are but caricatures. But is one composer more sensitive than the other? Not exactly. One was attempting realism, the other melodrama.
The new production at City Opera captures perfectly that high - or, depending on your aesthetic judgment, low - melodramatic style. Stephanie Friede as Minnie walks like a bowlegged man, emotes in grand gesture, and turns her face to profile for that recognizable Dorothy Gish effect - in fact, DeMille made a film of "Girl of the Golden West" in 1915. And when it snows in this mountain encampment, it is a full-fledged blizzard.
Ideally, one should only attend this opera in Italy, where the word "hello" is pronounced "allo." Americans simply can't act like Puccini's Westerners and should never even attempt to do so. To her credit, director Lillian Groag downplays the ethnocentricity and allows her men to pronounce phrases like "hip, hip, hooray" without accent.
"Girl of the Golden West" is Puccini's most chromatic score - his "Salome," if you will - and also employs leitmotifs to identify our hero as actually a rather nasty villain. Conductor George Manahan led a kaleidoscopically colorful and harmonically uncompromising performance.
Most fans assume that Leoncavallo wrote his famous line "la commedia e finita" for Canio the clown in "I Pagliacci," but actually he composed it for the raisonneur figure of Tonio. The line was simply appropriated by the greatest Canio of all, Enrico Caruso. Such was the power of this seminal tenor that he could alter the construction of the works in which he starred.
Caruso, who happened to be in the Met stable in 1910, created the role of Dick Johnson. Tenors ever since have been trying desperately to measure up. Debut artist Renzo Zulian is hardly from the same legendary pantheon, but he handled his role efficiently. He was properly exaggerated in his thespian maneuvers, but also invested his singing with a good deal of emotional weight. For me, the highlight of the afternoon was his "Or son sei mesi." He strained only occasionally for high notes that simply wouldn't come.
Ms. Friede was a powerful Minnie. This is a tough role, since she is not supposed to be too heartbroken or hopeful, feminine qualities in this masculine world. But her tomboy pragmatism leads the dance of seduction in a direction that satisfies both her urges and those of her conflicted cowboy. Ms. Friede occasionally lapsed into inaudibility and had difficulties with her upper register. Horns, sopranos, and tenors all missed those high notes: Perhaps it was the rarified mountain air.
The Jack Rance of Stephen Kechulius was spectacular. I checked my program during the second intermission to see if he had ever sung Scarpia. He has and, I'll wager, it was a brutal and naturalistic performance. Very secure in range, he could dominate vocally and still integrate with the score, his threatening baritone seeming to emerge from the lower brass canyons like a rattlesnake. Yet Mr. Kechulius takes the trouble to humanize the sheriff, who is, after all, the victim of Minnie's questionable moral choice to cheat in the pivotal game of poker (as in the best stories of Crane and Harte, it is the cards that determine the fate of these Westerners).
Possibly the finest voice this day belonged to the Jake Wallace of Brian Mulligan, whose ballads have a central role in the plot. Ms. Groag makes Jake a messenger of whatever gods may be in this forsaken camp. He appears at pivotal moments with his guitar in tow, as if to emphasize that it is his melancholia that infects this entire universe. Like a Greek shade, he establishes a key link to the ironic paradigms of the story. He also appeared to be blind, but perhaps it was my own eyes that were defective.
"Girl of the Golden West" has always been a problem play for Puccini devotees. On one level just a maudlin "horse opera," it can be elevated to a social commentary about the subjugated role of women in society or a tragedy of man's subjugation to chance. Whatever it is, it is performed rarely and much praise should go to City Opera for reviving it. I have a soft spot in my heart for this particular work. After all, what other opera has its men sing poignantly about how much they miss their dogs?
"Girl of the Golden West" will be performed again April 8 & 16 at 8 p.m.; April 13, 19 & 21 at 7:30 p.m.; and April 23 at 1:30 p.m.(Lincoln Center, 212-307-4100).