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Thread: Why is La fanciulla del west not a popular opera?

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    Senior Member HumphreyAppleby's Avatar
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    Default Why is La fanciulla del west not a popular opera?

    Surprisingly, most critics actually seem to a gree the Puccini's opera La fanciulla del west is a rather stupendous work. Yet it is still relatively rarely performed. There was a burst of performances around its centenary, at the Met, in Stockholm, Athens and Chicago, but it is still performed considerably less than other Puccini operas, even the incredibly demanding Turandot.

    The opera seems to have always been divisive. Stravinsky called it "... a horse opera, extraordinarily right for television, with a Marshall Dillon and professional Indians...", while Anton Webern reviewed the opera in a letter to Schoenberg after attending a live performance: "A score that sounds original in every way. Splendid. Every measure astonishing... I have to say I really like it... I would like so much to look at this score together with you. Has this opera completely bewitched me?" Two of Puccini's contemporaries, both of whom fascinated him, and whom he respected (though he hated their music for the most part), give completely contradicting opinions.

    The most commonly cited reasons for the lack of popularity of Fanciulla, in my experience, are the setting, the lead role, and the lack of arias/the musical style. The setting, while it might seem strange to call it exotic to an American audience, is certainly a dramatically rich one. I often read comments about miners singing in Italian for their mothers far away... as if this wasn't exactly what happened: “I had two married men with me here,
    whose drinking propensities severely tried my patience. Several times I determined to discharge them, but they always found some excuse. They would generally begin to cry, and between their tears and draughts of whisky, tell me that they had just had letters from home.” This quote from the memoir of William Downie, an early frontiersman shows the scene in Act I of Fanciulla where Jim breaks down and the miners send him home isn't that far away from what actually happened in the wild west. I also find it a bit odd that few people point out the source material: the play that Puccini took the story from was written by a man who was the son of a miner in California, and knew whereof he wrote. As to the lead role being difficult, it certainly is, but that doesn't stop performances of Turandot or Zauberflote (which isn't a lead role, as the flute has no singing parts, but i refer to the Queen of the Night). And as for arias, well shucks:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGquczzHEb8 (Jake Wallace)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gg5ts-rs5BU (Jack Rance)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ut36BaTVok (Minnie)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64wUWdKgKU4 (Johnson)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptLQ-U7ObbQ (Johnson)

    and of course, the only one that gets mentioned, Ch'ella mi creda.

    I'll say right now that Fanciulla is my favorite opera, so there's an added layer of incredulity on my part as to how someone couldn't love it too. But it is an interesting question, why isn't this grand opera, sometimes called Die walkure of the Wild West, more popular? What do you think of Puccini's Golden Girl?

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    Although it is one of Puccini's operas i enjoy the most, the plot is weaker than other popular work.

    This opera stands, perhaps, in no man's land. Too avant-garde for traditionalists. To traditional for progressists.

    Also the fact that lacks of traditional arias.

    Nevertheless, Mimi is probably one of the most demanding leading roles for a woman (besides singing, she most know how to ride a horse and shot a pistol)

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    There are no arias - something which Puccini lovers go for. I must confess I was disappointed when I heard it. It appears a tired opera.

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    I LOVE this opera to bits. I don't think the plot is any sillier than other operas - in fact I like it because it has a strong and resourceful female character for once, who instead of dying of love or some other ludicrous behaviour, is willing to fight for what she wants. I particularly enjoy the "rescue by cheating at poker" scene.

    As DavidA says, I think the problem for many is the lack of arias - but if you just go with the flow there are swirls of glorious melody and fantastic harmonies. It's no different in that sense from Pelléas et Mélisande, or Parsifal.

    The title role is clearly a killer. Nina Stemme is my favourite Minnie at the moment. Here she is in a lovely Swedish production which makes inspired reference to the silent movie tradition. DVD please, Unitel.



    But it is very easy to sound awful (Mara Zampieri in the La Scala DVD, or, more recently, Deborah Voigt in a 2013 production from Liège I saw on Arte.)
    Natalie

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    Senior Member HumphreyAppleby's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mamascarlatti View Post
    I LOVE this opera to bits. I don't think the plot is any sillier than other operas - in fact I like it because it has a strong and resourceful female character for once, who instead of dying of love or some other ludicrous behaviour, is willing to fight for what she wants. I particularly enjoy the "rescue by cheating at poker" scene.
    This is precisely what pushes my estimation of this opera over the top. And most of the important character developments for Minnie were created by Puccini: her literacy lesson being a Bible verse instead of something else, her riding in to save Johnson with a shotgun, and her passionate speech of redemptive love at the end (which is, in my opinion, one of the best finales ever).

    In some ways, though it is often called Puccini's Wagnerian opera, the message of the plot is the essence of anti-Wagner. If Minnie and Johnson were both killed by the miners, and united in eternal oblivion, then it would be Wagnerian. But Minnie saves not just their souls but there lives. Despite it's bittersweetness, the ending is hopeful: they ride into the sunrise, turning Western film cliches on their heads before they even happen. Puccini's message is about redemption in this world, and about the power of compassion and intelligence united to form a new consciousness. In this way, Puccini stands closer to Rudolf Steiner than to Schopenhauer, who was Wagner's mentor.

    Also, about the lack of arias, why do people treat that as a blessing when Wagner does it but a curse when Puccini does? It's just strange to me.

    Sherrill Milnes is the best Rance in my opinion. v=MC3W2yeGyfA

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    The story was ok, not a big tragedy like Butterfly, not as dramatic as Tosca nor as sweet and poignant like Boheme.
    Musically, I don't particularly care much for most of Act I until Dick Johnson showed up.
    The lack of arias actually does not bother me as much but it might be a big concern. Just like Falstaff which is considered Verdi's greatest work by many but I think general audience probably prefer his other works more.
    Somehow the ending was a bit of a let down, I certainly like the idea of riding off into the sunset together for the two lovers but somehow Puccini did not quite pull it off. However, act II is one of my favourite single acts of any opera, no arias but just about the most melodic and lyrical act.
    It is also a difficult work to stage, I think. Generally Turandot is considered the most difficult of Puccini soprano's role but Minnie is almost as heavy but the role is much much longer than Turandot's 25 minutes of fame.
    It takes awhile but I think the work is slowly catching on though.

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    Senior Member Seattleoperafan's Avatar
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    Boring story and lack of arias. I didn't enjoy it. Lots of work for the soprano with few thrills.

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    Senior Member MAuer's Avatar
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    David Belasco's source material was, in many ways, typical late Victorian/Edwardian melodrama that appealed to public tastes in the U.S. at that time. The plucky, but still virtuous heroine was a part of that tradition, and Minnie's choice of the Bible for reading material fits in with that conception. Like mamscarlatti, I like the character of Minnie because she has backbone and courage as well as compassion. (And I can't resist Sherrill Milnes' Sheriff Rance!)

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    Senior Member (Ret) moody's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    There are no arias - something which Puccini lovers go for. I must confess I was disappointed when I heard it. It appears a tired opera.
    There is one very big aria in Act 3, "Che'Ella Mi Creda..."but apart from that you are right.
    The reason for the comparative lack of popularity is that the subject matter is too modern for many people. They don't really want cowboys and miners from Puccini.
    Fools talk because they have to say something, wise men talk because they have something to say.

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    I always enjoy it; but it always surprises me, that I'm enjoying it. It's so NOT OPERA. It's a classic western (movie), played out on stage, with singing.

    And at this point I go numb from the effort to say what the DIFFERENCE is between opera and a western, apart from the singing. I dunno.

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    Curious that the poker scene puzzles me. It "seems very unoperatic" but works really well as a movie soundtrack! I don't know if i'm expressing myself with the exact words but it's something like that.

    Nevertheless, if i'm not mistaken, i think La fanciulla is the only opera (and Il tritico) that had its premiere in the Met and it is still performed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by guythegreg View Post
    And at this point I go numb from the effort to say what the DIFFERENCE is between opera and a western, apart from the singing. I dunno.
    the banjo! Puccini should've had a stab at Oh, Brother, where art Thou?

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    ... god, you're right ...

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    Senior Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by deggial View Post
    the banjo! Puccini should've had a stab at Oh, Brother, where art Thou?
    But Minnie and her pals are out in California, not down in Dixie!

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    still, the banjo wins nevermind that Oh Brother isn't even a western

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