The Original Spaghetti Western
It drizzles mists on and off as several individuals in various pairings and groupings rush in to get to their seats for tonight’s spectacular event. In one corner, you may see an elderly couple, long seasoned in the liberal and performing arts, always a beacon of youthful energy as they step through familiar doors, while on the other end, one can expect to find a younger crowd, sometimes in larger groups, three generations removed and likely students at one of the nearby educational facilities. Amongst the faces, will be be hidden vocations of students, vocalists, teachers, salespersons, marketers, fry cooks, drivers, and really anything that might drag in a paycheck. What has brought them all together here is the still cherrying event that has captivated audiences for centuries, and one that extravagates so many times a season. This Thursday evening, Opera Carolina, Charlotte’s home company, was to be presenting one of the masters of the form, Giacomo Puccini’s, The Girl of the West, a marked piece in the repertoire of the Italian, of a love triangle that takes place in a saloon during the California Gold rush of the 1840s.
Puccini has been considered by several to be the greatest composer of the Italian opera after Verdi, the latter whom inspired the young Giacomo after the composer-to-be walked nearly twenty miles to attend a performance of Aida. It was in this context that Giacomo decided to make opera his life’s principle work.
While the opera house is no longer the central hub as it stood in either Puccini’s or Verdi’s time, their works still emanate through our world and you have likely heard Puccini if you saw Paul Potts’ competition winning performance in the first season of Britain’s Got Talent, watched films such as ‘Atonement’, Moulin Rouge, or Moonstruck. Even Homer Simpson gave his go at opera in one of the latter seasons of the staple American comedy. Still not convinced? Check out a most popular of all remakes, ‘Rent’ adapted from Puccini’s La Boheme.
Considering adaptations, Puccini found the fodder for his work after witnessing the play, ‘The Girl of the Golden West’ by American author David Belasco, and despite not speaking any English, felt moved by the essence of what took place on stage for the proceeding work. This was in fact, the second in succession of Puccini adapting a play from Belasco, for during this period he had seen and moved himself into composing the wildly successful Madame Butterfly.
The two-act opera opens in a saloon full of exhausted gold miners who pass the time lamenting for home through song, playing cards, and of course…drinking. A cheat here, a rustle there and the saloon owner, Minnie steps onto the stage and is a accompanied by a pistol shot of control and composure as she stands: the sole head of the saloon. Soon sheriff Jack Rance enters, quickly followed by a Wells Fargo agent (yes, the Wells Fargo) mentioning how they are hot on the trail of bandit leader, Ramerrez and they hope to lure him to the nearby vicinity soon. In this exchange, the sheriff Jack does his best, unsuccessfully, to woo the tough and beautiful Minnie. Of course it turns out Ramerrez, under an assumed name enters and has a romantic history from Minnie but his troubled past and pressured present is an obstacle to the woman he does not know he loves yet. This is the premise that launches the opera into a social and moral drama of the ages, backed by some of the most celebrated music ever composed.
To illustrate the stature of Puccini, The Girl of the West was commissioned to him by the Metropolitan opera (remember, no English!) and it would have its premiere at the Met in 1910, with praise immediately following. ‘The West’, as is so aptly understood to be an American concept, was a draw for many artists and composers and throughout the work, one can hear themes and melodies that are distinctly of U.S origin, but arranged and presented through the great European tradition.
It was under the baton of Opera Carolina’s principle conductor, James Meena, that Puccini’s masterwork was staged in conjunction with Italian artistic Director and Designer Ivan Stefanutti. The collaboration resulted in a spectacle to be cemented in the memory of all those who saw. Visually, Opera Carolina has an impeccable record, and this stood as no exception. Meena and Stefanutti went through great heights to ensure belief on the stage including reaching out to the Wells Fargo history museum, both local and out in California to get material from the archives in setting up the stage for authenticity. The gradiating wood scheme, with atmospheric lights of smoke and grit were reminiscent of early American paintings and the costume revealed that a time long since passed was being presented before our very eyes.
The composite traditions of an early 20th century Italian opera, about the 19th century ‘West’, being offered up in the early 21st century by an American conductor and an Italian designer resulted in a rich experience and demonstrated how this not quite dormant form still remains relevant and to be enjoyed even today.