Home, Home on the 'Catena'

Classic Arts Features   Home, Home on the 'Catena'
Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, opening April 3 at New York City Opera, proves there's nothing so strange about cowboys singing in Italian.

Igor Stravinsky famously called Puccini's Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) "a horse opera," by which he meant an "oater," or a Western. But, wait a minute‹doesn't that imply that typical Westerns are like operas with horses, not the other way around? So which came first, the operatic Western, the Western opera or the "Spaghetti Western"? And do any of them have anything to do with the real West?

The cross-pollination of Italian opera and American cowboy myths is both puzzling and never-ending. Only a few years ago, while I was living in Italy, one day, after a few hours of analyzing and researching Fanciulla, the idea of cowboys and Indians singing in Italian began to try my patience‹after all, only we Americans know what Westerns are really about, right? So I took a break to do some errands at the local shopping center. But when I got there, it turned out to be "Cowboy Day" at the mall, and everyone there was dressed in Wild West gear and speaking Italian! And then there are the Buteri, the cowboys of Italy's Maremma region, who still hold rodeos every summer.

And why should singing cowboys seem strange to us? After all, there really were singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Even the most macho of Hollywood cowboys, John Wayne, tried his hand at it: He had been cast as "Singing Sandy" in a series of low-budget Westerns. The problem was that he couldn't sing‹his songs had to be dubbed. "Git yourself another singin' cowboy," he told his boss, "I ain't gonna do it no more!"

Perhaps we should also ask ourselves why, as Americans, Puccini's Fanciulla seems odder than the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy version of The Girl of the Golden West, in which MacDonald (as the simple saloon owner, now named Mary Robbins) warbles in her stratospheric operetta voice to the polite applause of a drunken crowd. And seeing Walter Pidgeon as Sheriff Jack Rance and Buddy Ebsen as Alabama might give us further pause.

Maybe Puccini's Fanciulla seems outlandish because it's not a conventional Western as we have come to know the genre. In our mythic American West, the heroes are upright and never flinch, and every act of tenderness must be paid for in blood. The women are supportive but dependent, and usually in need of a rescue. The villains are usually ethnic (normally Native American or Mexican) and have little sense of fair play. At the end of the Western, the hero and heroine ride off into the sunset, having solved all their problems.

Puccini's Fanciulla, though, turns these stereotypes on their heads. The "hero" Ramerrez (alias Dick Johnson) is not white and not honest. The miners, far from being tight-lipped stoics, weep for their distant mothers and even their dogs. Rance, the white villain, has enough honor to respect his poker bet with Minnie and let her lover live (even though Ramerrez is apprehended later). And Minnie herself is no defenseless victim but a gun-wielding, card-cheating, hard-lovin' heroine who rescues her man all by her lonesome. And just to make the reversal complete, Minnie and Johnson ride off together into the sunrise‹symbolic of the theme of redemption that Puccini instilled in this opera. The cognitive dissonance we experience with Fanciulla may be that of our dearly held clichés rubbing up against a perhaps more realistic image of how the West was won.

None of the creators of Fanciulla had any connection to the American West except for the author of the play on which it is based, the American David Belasco, who had been raised in California by gold-seeking immigrants. His stated theatrical goal was to bring Art closer to Nature, and his Girl of the Golden West certainly did give Broadway babies a taste of the wilderness west of Weehawken. But how realistic could it truly be, especially as an opera? And isn't it really Hollywood's version of the West that most of us use as a yardstick?

Puccini, his librettists, his publisher and the Italian performers (including the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Enrico Caruso) had all been attracted by the exotic Wild West, mostly through the theatricalities of William Cody (Buffalo Bill). In 1890, as a student in Milan, Puccini saw Buffalo Bill and wrote to his brother Michele: "Buffalo Bill was here and I liked it. Buffalo Bill is a company of North Americans with a quantity of Indians, redskins, and buffalos that do splendid tricks and reproduce for real the scenes that happen on the frontier."

Buffalo Bill, a consummate showman, made several trips to Europe and brought a huge retinue of "authentic" Westerners with him, including Indians (many of whom had been imprisoned for having fought against the American army). Just before Puccini saw the troupe, they had traveled to Florence, where one Sigabetta, editor of the Florentine paper La Nazione, filed this report:

"Several men and women got off the first class wagon, among whom was the famous shooter, Annie Oakley. The Mexicans got out, some in their costumes, and then all the Indians in their picturesque fashions, wrapped in colorful blankets (carpets), with their faces almost covered. They come from all types of races‹Sioux, Arapahoe, Blackfeet, and Ogallala. Little by little they opened the blankets and one could see the color of their faces‹copper, gold, chocolate. Some were of an orange color, others reddish.... Many of the Americans who are part of the company have gone to lodge at various hotels. The savages and the others are camping on the fields of the Mint. They sleep by their horses." [Yes, Indians camping on the banks of the Arno!]

"The savage Indians are five or six to a tent, as if in the mountains or the prairie of their country. The tents of the chiefs are painted with horses and people‹pictures like children draw‹and above the door is a tail-like hat made of many colored bird feathers and the skins of other animals. The hat is worn whenever they leave the tent. They sleep inside the tent on a type of divan. In each tent is a fireplace with burning coals, and it is warmer there than in our rooms, even when well heated.... In one tent was the celebrated Miss Oakley. She is from Ohio. She is very polite. She is one of the greatest shots ever known‹a prodigy. She says that one of her tricks is this: to throw two balls with one hand and hit them with all the bullets in the rifle that she is shooting with the other hand."

Obviously, the cultural divide ran wide and deep. The clear condescension, even in noting Miss Oakley's politeness, seems to dehumanize the Americans.

Yet that aura of exoticism sold tickets, and Buffalo Bill certainly knew how to "buffalo" the press to increase his publicity. Arranging a meeting with Sigabetta, he sent as emissaries two Indians "among whom was the famous Bear of the Rockies, 'Rocky', two cowboys, and one 'trap man' , who came to announce that the colonel would receive him "at the 'camp' in his tent." Cody, quite aware of his Italian audience's cultural and religious predilections, even told the editor that the Indians were almost all Catholic: "Buffalo Bill told me 'their priests had spoken to them about the Pope, and of the magnificence of the Vatican. The Pope received them, and they were enthusiastic.' "

Of course, the myth of the Wild West continued to grow. It was helped not only by Puccini's "horse opera", but by the films of Thomas Edison (his first experiments were very brief films of Buffalo Bill's specialty acts) and countless others.

Yet these were not quite the myths Puccini had in mind. His Fanciulla del West is much more than a contest between guys in black and white hats. It's a grand story of the redemptive power of love, of mercy conquering vengeance. In many ways‹including its disguised Wagnerian musical quotes, its seamless flow of music, its prose-like phrase lengths, and its inventive orchestration‹the mythic target of Puccini's sights was closer to Tristan und Isolde. And surely, in Fanciulla del West, he hit his mark.

Deborah Burton, co-author and editor of Tosca's Prism, a new collection of essays from Northeastern University Press, is an internationally known Puccini scholar.

Recommended Reading: