Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Leap from Mimi to Minnie

The excitement of seeing Puccini's La Fanciulla del West staged by the Met (which commissioned it a hundred years ago), lies in not only buying in, but revelling in the melodramatic structure devised by David Belasco. The rough-and-tumble miners out in California of the 1850's are by turns are buddies, adversaries, sentimentalists longing for their mom and dog back home, and rough justice administrators, ready to shoot or string up someone who irritates them. Belasco was the king of sentimental melodrama (witness his "Madame Butterfly" pre
viously, and the operatic outcome of that one); known as the 'Bishop of Broadway," wearing a clerical collar for no ecclesiastical reason, he was full of contradictions himself (he may have invented what we'd call today 'the casting couch').

And deftly sitting in the midst of these contradictions, Maestro Puccini has written the horse-opera of all time.

The problem with this opera, of course, is the Italian aesthetic viewing American culture. Later on, it would improve to give us the 'spaghetti western' -- which was still odd, but more understandable to an American audience. But back in 1911, Europe (as well as other cultures) admired the rough-and-tumble reports of what the Wild West was like, and fueled by the nascent cinema, saw the cowboy as a heroic figure, a stock in trade character, built-in for melodrama, with its outsider come to town, showdown with the opposing force, with wide open spaces, and the idea that one could claim something and have it be yours. You could stake a claim on a silver mine, or claim a woman as long as you could prove that you could hold on to her. Whether or not this reflects reality of the time is up for debate, but something makes up myths that are forged from grains of truth.

It was Jean Cocteau who so loved American Westerns in the cinema that he wrote a long, poetic review of "The Narrow Trail (1917)" that baffled Americans; not only was the Western trope being taken seriously but taken to be Art . So when Puccini's long cantilenas of operatic fervor wrapped around a homely tale of a girl with a heart of gold it truly was an example of cognitive dissonance that fights itself to work on the stage.

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