Opera: Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”
No red-blooded American can repress an inward chuckle at the thought of a serious Italian opera dealing with the subject of the Wild West. It is the same bit of preposterousness that convulses nighttime TV audiences when Johnny Carson shows clips of John Wayne movies dubbed in Japanese. The fact that Americans are traditionally disposed to laugh at themselves perhaps accounts for the continued popularity of such a clumsy and emotionally tepid work as Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
It may also explain why the audience at the Bushnell Memorial opening of the Connecticut Opera Association Saturday night wanted so desperately to guffaw — but was thwarted, as this is surely one of the most humorless operas ever written. Nor can it be taken seriously. While it is true that Puccini never strove to present psychological strata, still, there cannot be many who identify with a beautiful, sharpshooting barmaid who reads the Bible, cheats at cards, and has never been kissed.
The ridiculousness of the whole affair is compounded by the verbal Americanisms…. Every “hello” and “hurrah,” every reference to “Meester Jone-sone” from “Sah-crah-main-to,” every stereotype (notably the stage Indian whose red face lights up as he says “whee-skey”) is bound to raise [a smile]. So, too, is Puccini’s self-conscious use of “Dear Old House,” “Dooda Day,” and the pervasive “Old Dog Tray,” which is heard at the beginning and again at the very ennd of the opera.
Given these considerations, then, it is practically impossible to stage this opera successfully. Strict avoidance of satire or farce has been the tradition, and it was this interpretation to which conductor Anton Guadagno and stage director Henry Butler adhered in Saturday night’s production, with occasional lapses. The spectacle of the sheriff pitching his hat offstage, Minnie banging the cards on the table, and her hurling a chair across the stage seemed somewhat incongruous.
But it is only fair to say the the opera itself is far more susceptible to criticism than this performance, which was in nearly every respect creditable. Conductor Guadagno elicited a fine orchestral sound and balance, especially in the final two acts. Vern Shinall was a pleasing Rance, and Radmila Bakocevic had many lovely moments as Minnie…..
In the role of Dick Johnson Giuseppe Giacomini projected with astonishing vividness, particularly in his big third act aria “Ch’ella mi creda,” in which both his and Puccini’s higher talents were conjoined.
Dean Tschetter designed the sets, but did not leave room enough onstage in the third act to allow for the entrance of even a single horse (Puccini called for eight), which was a keen disappointment. It was clear, however, that even wild horses cannot pull this opera to the level of greatness achieved elsewhere by Puccini, and the truth of the matter is that there is very little truth in this bit of verismo.
~published in the Hartford Courant, date unknown