23 Nov 2008
The ‘Colors’ of La Fanciulla
The transition in Giacomo Puccini’s mature period from one autonomous phase to another (although the two are connected by subtle links) is a fact that has been accepted by operatic scholars.
The transition in Giacomo Puccini’s mature period from one autonomous phase to another (although the two are connected by subtle links) is a fact that has been accepted by operatic scholars.
Beyond the convergence of orchestral language and musicality with a few of the primary exponents of European musical modernism such as Debussy, Strauss and Stravinsky, certainly meaningful and conscious reverberations in an ever forward-looking musician, one of the most evident hallmarks of Puccini’s twentieth-century period is the retrospective itinerary which his dramatic style follows. The high point of Puccini’s modernity is thus attributed to works such as Il Trittico and Turandot. In the three parts of Il Trittico a manneristic compendium of outdated genres and dramatic styles is realized: from the Grand Guignol realism of Il Tabarro (a revisiting of veristic subjects in his 1890s style), to the sentimental opera centered on the heroine’s tragic fate in Suor Angelica (a perfect example of Puccinian’s fin de siècle mode, colored by archaic musical pieces grounded by the liturgical context of the story), to the recuperation of the comic genre in Gianni Schicchi (which, differing from the contemporary reconstructions of eighteenth-century buffo, brings a non-restorative comic style, based on contemporary language and staging). In Turandot a binary option for the revival of the operatic genre is offered: on one hand, through the reformulation of the fairy tale under a mythical heading; on the other, through the meticulous reconstruction of the forms of nineteenth-century melodrama (commonly referred to as the “solite forme” of operatic works).
Another option of modernist dramaturgical rethinking is at play in Puccini’s twentieth-century works: that of stylistic fragmentation, of breaking down compositions into heterogeneous linguistic blocks, in keeping with the standardized categorization of vocal types and of the dramatis personae. Again Turandot is the culmination of this trend. A musical articulation in blocks bases itself on an array of character types and situations (the tragic, solitary Turandot and the sympathetic slave Liù; the heroism of Prince Calaf which launches his dual challenge to the enigmatic and stunning princess, and the sentimental side of a Calaf who is interested in the fate of the little slave girl; the grotesque masks [Ping, Pang and Pong]). At some moments these blocks are carved out of the free use of dissonant intervals and harmonic units (Turandot’s imperious and cruel sphere), at others from the exotic material of pentatonic scales and authentic Chinese melodies (the marionette-like irony of the masks, but also the human side and intimate innocence of Turandot). Still others come from the sentimental and poignant melodies of Puccini’s normal style (generally the parts of Calaf and the slave Liù). The humanization of Turandot, her metamorphosis from purveyor of death to a being capable of love, is therefore put together through a series of frontal juxtapositions in which the princess collides with registers and stylistic levels expressed by the other characters (Turandot’s cruelty and Liù’s sacrifice, the Prince of Persia’s failure and the unknown prince’s success, the icy body of the death-princess and the “burning hands” with which Calaf crushes her in his ardent embrace). This metamorphosis corresponds more to the opera’s complex dramatic and visual program than in the character’s internal motivations. The opera beats out the chronological proceeding of the story, from sunset to sunrise, from the cold spite of the moon’s silvery reflections to the warmth of the sun’s golden rays. 
From both of these points of view, the problem of La Fanciulla del West remains an open one: according to a widespread tradition of interpretation, it is a “difficult” opera, one of transition, in part unresolved on the level of dramatic/musical coherence, a work of crisis, not yet one of reformation, a recognition of a new path but of a path not yet taken with confidence. Even pioneer supporters of the modernity and novelty of Puccianian dramaturgy such as Fedele d’Amico, (who never tired of repeating that Puccini has always been modern, be it when the “naturalist”in the common, petit-bourgeois sense of the word, prevails in him, or when the “twentieth-century, aestheticizing” musician dominates, that is when he “is capable, in his own way, of that decadent distancing from his own material” which forms the dividing line between nineteenth- and twentieth-century music) succumb to doubts and display substantial reservations when faced with Fanciulla: the Puccinian western is thus the opera in which music comes to be reduced to an “abstract theatrical gesture,” to the “incoherent marginal notes , which reigns over one stylistic element alone, rigorously abstracted from the others: the orchestral color.” 
Following the maestro’s remarks on the opera one gets the impression that Fanciulla del West was a turning point, which anticipates and leads to the masterpieces of Il Trittico and Turandot. The choice of the drama’s subject, David Belasco’s  The Girl of the Golden West, difficulties encountered with the new pair of librettists (Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zargarini) which led to the composer’s assumption of almost the entire creative workload, as well as the opera’s long gestation period (longer than any other of Puccini’s works) which drew on until the New York première of 10 December 1910, all crown a period marked by a veritable anxiety over change (the “mania of pushing on…with a modernly constructed and intended work” Puccini disclosed in a letter in February 1905, right after Madama Butterfly) and dramatic restructuring:
Sometimes I think about something like La Bohème, the tragic and sentimental mixed with the comic (and I believe that this genre could stand to be reformed, certainly with different customs and practices, and thus it will require new settings, less sweet sentimentality (that is in a smaller quantity) and more “déchirant” drama. 
There we have it! The Girl promises to be a second Bohème, but stronger, bolder, fuller. 
It is precisely by means of Puccini’s twentieth-century perspective, which aims at a systemized linguistic flexibility and the composition of opera as a moment of retrospection and reformulation of languages, styles and forms, that in this essay I intend to propose a reinterpretation of the essential elements of Fanciulla del West , and in particular of those which express the “primary colors” of the story and its heroine.
The aspect of vocal types is one evident feature that distinguishes Fanciulla from previous Puccini operas. The usage of only one female voice, the soprano Minnie — the Indian-girl Wowkle, mezzo-soprano, has an entirely marginal role — counterpoised against the dense group of voices of the male characters who populate the miners’ camp (at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains in the Californian Sierra at the time of the Gold Rush) establishes a hitherto unheard of vocal dynamic, which poses entirely new problems of musical equilibrium to the composer. Such problems can be seen in two areas: firstly, from the point of view of individual differentiation, as is the case with the sheriff Jack Rance and the miner Sonora, both baritones but with opposite qualities, the former treacherous and scornful, the latter noble in spirit (a strategy that in hindsight prefigures one of the key elements of the drama of Suor Angelica). Secondly, problems arise from the point of view of the group treatment of the legion of basses, baritones and supporting tenors. Puccini’s solution here creates the peculiar vocal color of Fanciulla. Gianni Schicchi will be the most direct development upon it.
Overall, this kind of collective yet internally differentiated male character, composed of a mix of gold diggers, adventurers and outlaws, is the expression of a primitive society without rules, a world of crude men. As the stereotype would have it the men are drunk, cheating, trigger-happy, indifferent toward life and uncaring about death (“Evvia! Che è poi la morte / un calcio dentro al buio e buona notte” according to Sheriff Rance’s cynical philosophy). It is deep within this society that Minnie – the woman with a pistol, vigorous, and, if necessary, brutal administrator of the “Polka” saloon, by collective trust and common maternal identification the guardian of the camp’s fortunes – expresses the “energetic,” “savage,” “wiry” side of her personality. The musical color that connotes this sphere of action and this aspect of the protagonist is rough and vigorous, its fundamental qualities are its cutting rhythm, its asymmetrical phrasing, a dissonant and thorny harmonic language (unrelated harmonies of sevenths, ninths, elevenths, augmented chords, whole tone scales), a moment of vocal heroism for Minnie. To illustrate that this color is a permanent and unchangeable feature of this particular society, there is a series of episodes distributed in the arc of the entire opera: in Act I, the episode of the attempted hanging of the cheater Sid (“Al laccio il ladro!”) and the squabble between Rance and Sonora, interrupted by Minnie’s forceful reprimand (“Mistrees Rance, fra poco”); in Act II, the scene in which Rance and his men burst into Minnie’s hut (“Chiamano…chi sarà”); in Act III, the episodes of the manhunt (in the score two measures after rehearsal number 5), of Johnson’s capture (“A morte!”) and of his subsequent rescue by Minnie (from rehearsal number 29 on).
A distinct color shows the other side of Minnie’s personality: a girl who is “sweet,” “civilized,” (the little schoolteacher of the camp with “only thirty dollars of education” and a taste for romantic novels), “proudly virginal,” and “strong of spirit.” She is also deeply unsure of herself, such that she paints herself as “dim, and good for nothing.” She is a girl who paradoxically has not yet danced her first dance, nor given her first kiss in search of love. In contrast to the connotation of the “savage” Minnie, her sweet and virginal side are delineated by means of diatonic music, tonally defined or guided towards pentatonic solution, with symmetry in phrasing and a simple and smooth vocal line . In this mode the protagonist expresses her own kindly attitude toward the miners (one need only think of the episode of the catechism on Psalm LI) * and her nostalgic and dreamy declaration of regrets and more intimate desires (e.g. “S’amavan tanto” in the duet with Rance). But, above all, this dramatic-musical color plays a conspicuous role in the lady’s sentimental attitude toward Dick Johnson, the chance visitor to the Polka whom she met once before and never again forgot, with whom she retires to the intimate setting of her mountain hut and shares her first dance and first kiss, and who reveals himself to be none other than the terrible outlaw Ramerrez, desperately wanted by the men of the camp. This color is aptly prevalent in the duets between Minnie and Johnson: at the conclusion of Act I, in the moment of their tender feelings (from rehearsal number 114); in the Act II duet’s episodes of courtship (“Del biscotto alla crema?”) and of the ecstasy in their pleasure (“Minnie…Che dolce nome!”). On the whole, the dialectic expressed through the two colors in Minnie’s personality (in their opposing auditory poles of attraction) neatly encapsulates the substance of the opera, a “drama of love and moral redemption,” evincing the dramatic motif that Puccini desperately wants to draw out of Belasco’s drama:
…in the adaptation of such violent source material I brought the inspiration of a vibrant and refined idealism , toward the end of encircling those catastrophic human events in a dreamlike atmosphere. In Belasco’s drama, for example…little emphasis was placed on the redeeming quality of the protagonist: it was I who had the librettists develop this to a greater extent, and thus this desire for purification, this pained cry for peace gained through love and hard work, became more clear and truthful. 
Without delay, Puccini attracts attention to this dramatic nucleus starting from the theme of the symphonic introduction, played before the curtain opens on the saloon. The theme of the introduction indeed presents a two-pronged makeup, dissonant and choppy in Minnie’s “savage” color in the first part, diatonic and in her sweet and spiritual color in the segment which follows. In fact, the interplay between love and redemption presented an opportunity new to Puccinian dramaturgy, which had hitherto conceived of love only in tragic terms, as an error to be remedied by death. Conversely, in Fanciulla, the social and moral rehabilitation of Johnson/Ramerrez is a sort of function of the sentiment of love, or a direct consequence thereof. Indeed this is achieved neither by means of an interior maturation of the characters nor by a development in their psychologies. Minnie stays concurrently savage and sweet throughout. This manifests itself primarily in her extreme gestures of bandit savagery: she is deceitful in the poker game with Rance and masculine and willful when she bursts onto the scene of Johnson’s would-be execution; however, she is also maternal and imploring when she attempts to win the miners over. Johnson is a two-dimensional character: a kind outlaw and a generous man from the beginning to the end. Redemption, therefore, results from nothing but a choice between two equally possible options (human affection instead of worldly possessions, loving Minnie instead of stealing gold), which the little schoolteacher’s exegesis of Psalm LI prefigures as the actuation of a destiny inscribed forever in the history of every man:
That means, boys, that there exists,
No sinner in the world
To whom a path to redemption is not revealed…
May each of you learn within yourself
To enclose this supreme truth of love
To make this perspective evident, to dramatically realize it in music, stand two examples from Act I that blend into the action as simple stage music : the song of the balladeer Jack Wallace, “Che faranno i vecchi miei,” and the music of the waltz danced by Minnie and Dick Johnson at the Polka. These two pieces, which belong to the sphere of Minnie’s sweet and contemplative side, little by little come to signify the conceptual totality of dreams, nostalgia (the theme of homesickness, the desire to return to the home and family affections) and redemption through the passion of love. The song the minstrel entertains the miners with in Minnie’s saloon, which elicits a collective sentiment of despair and aggravates Larkens’ nervous state, is the first moment of real cantabile and the first long piece in the opera with tonal stability. Here Puccini combines a paraphrasing of the general tone and particular imagery found in the lyrics of a song from the repertoire of Californian balladeer music, known as Old Dog Tray (utilized in the intermezzo of the performance of Belasco’s Girl which Puccini attended at the beginning of 1907), with the melody of an original Zuni Indian chant (published with the title “The Festive Sun Dance of the Zuni” in 1904, arranged by the German-American composer Carlos Troyer).  This piece, which represents the primary locus of exotic color in the entire opera, is however tempered in part by a series of transformations in its melodic contour and by its operatic instrumentation, both of which diminish the piece’s most markedly “Indian” effects, in so doing emphasizing instead the symmetry and cadential regularity of the phrasing and thus conferring an “American” character, giving the piece a sort of melancholy cowboy air.
The dramatic impact of this piece is highlighted by the recurrence of its verbal theme (the persistent reiterations in the libretto of motives of homesickness and leaving for home), its musical theme (which comments upon Minnie’s biblical exegesis), and of both the verbal and musical theme (the baritone’s off-stage voice as the curtain rises and in the heartrending farewell epilogue). All this means that Sehnsucht [yearning or longing] for this other place, this remoteness found from top to bottom in Fanciulla, adds tension to both the change of place and living conditions we witness. This tension reaches a climax at the end by means of Johnson’s departure for a trip without return, signifying his redemption.
The waltz eases this process of metamorphosis. It is the second moment of real cantabile and the second long piece in the opera with tonal stability. Its melody, hummed by the miners in a musically crude fashion (without words and with a thin rhythmic accompaniment), at first a carefree little picture of the settings, slowly turns into a Puccinian cliché, that of a seduction dance, following the model of Musetta’s waltz in La Bohème. Once internalized by Minnie and Johnson, the dancing melody in fact becomes the primary color of their private sphere and, therefore, recurs as a principal component of the lyrical pieces that involve the two. These pieces start with and consistently return to the waltz, almost as if to suspend the situation (and associated sensations) until the moment in which it ends in the tumultuous embrace of the Act II duet.
The repeated use of the waltz melody in the sung parts of the protagonists’ duets should also be read as a manifestation of melodic economy, in keeping with an aim of Puccini’s era to reject the appeal of fluent and versatile singability. Indeed one of the fundamental choices in composing found in Fanciulla del West is the interaction between singing broken down into small bits of declamation , with a melodic poorness so often exhibited that it constitutes a pattern, and the richness of the orchestral arrangement, which conversely is brought to life by its motifs, in the originality of its timbre, in the fullness of its harmonic writing. These are among the most evident symptoms of Puccini’s breaking away from the operatic dramaturgy of the nineteenth century and the extent to which he was moving toward a certain type of melodrama that at the time, in Italy, found its most solid support in the best productions of d’Annunzian decadent style of (for example, in the austere declamatory style of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Phaedra).
In Fanciulla the orchestra takes on both a lyric and dramatic function, the latter parallel to the singer’s verbalism, beyond assuming the primary staging/narrative functions in the plot often articulated by dialogues (the whole act at the Polka) and those of scenic division in the crowd sequences (a brilliant example is the chase episode in Act III, which alternates between crowd sequences and “close-ups” dictated by thematic development in the orchestra). The vocal lines instead defy standard Italian song style; they remain in declamato for long periods according to a great number of suggestions, from “almost spoken” to “spoken low,” “spoken gracefully,” “spoken loudly,” and in many instances are reduced to true recitation with no musical intonation given.
In the economy of the opera as a whole, these declamatory moments function as a means by which to contain Puccini’s more typical style, which in pieces conventionally given over to lyric outbursts (e.g. the three duets: between Minnie and Rance in Act I and the two between Minnie and Johnson) remains more or less restricted to only a select few, very short phrases within the opera’s melodic spectrum, integrated into the underlying dramatic tapestry: one of these is Rance’s phrase “Or per un bacio tuo” in his duet with Minnie, another is Minnie’s “Io non sono che una povera fanciulla” in her first duet with Johnson. Others include the motif of Johnson’s kiss, the paired conclusion (“Dolce vivere e morir”) of the second duet, and Rance’s pseudo-aria “Or piangi tu, o Minnie” in Act III. That’s all , or nearly so.
Johnson’s aria in the last act, “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano” is consequently the only truly lyric number of the entire score written in the style of Puccini’s earlier melodic mode. By its formal compactness (entirely enclosed within some twenty beats of music) and by its unity of character and adherence to the dramatic situation (the last, most intimate confession of a character on the brink of death), this aria conforms to the happy model of similar pieces such as Mimì’s “Sono andati?” in La Bohème or Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” in Tosca. Within the fragmented stylistic context of Fanciulla, however, “Ch’ella mi creda” represents nothing more than yet another vocal color, that of the fullness of love. The character Johnson, depicted with a captivating charm by his characteristic motif in a ragtime rhythm, stubbornly intent upon showing himself in the conventional role of the tenor, attempts to establish himself this way from his first entrance. A survey of Johnson’s vocal profile, however, shows him to be such only in the decisive moment of conflict with the antagonist Rance, his rival due to social status (the sheriff vs. the bandit) and personal aspirations (the suitor refused by Minnie vs. the man loved and redeemed by means of Minnie’s love).
In an interview published in 1911 in the “Gazzetta di Torino,” Puccini exposes the underlying reasoning behind his own poetics at the time of Fanciulla, recalling the persistent vitality of the dramaturgy of Richard Wagner, whom he called “forefather of all contemporary music” provided one knew how to purify it of its intrinsic “adornments” and “exuberances.”
This mention of Wagner is anything but a passing thought, given that Fanciulla is surrounded on many levels by a series of Wagnerian suggestions. There is a narrative line which brings about moral redemption, as in Parsifal, although cleansed of mystic incrustations and of the Wagnerian mythology of purity: in Minnie’s harsh analysis, the men remain “outlaws and cheats”: the “gamemaster” Rance, the true “outlaw” Johnson/Ramerrez, the “mistress of the flophouse and of gambling” Minnie. There is a trace of the union of Sigmund e Siglinde in the embrace of the two protagonists who ignore the gusts of wind that batter their shack, but it is only fleeting. There is the evocation of Minnie in Valkyrie’s clothing the instant she bursts onto the scene of Johnson’s hanging, “on horseback, scantily clad, her hair to the wind,” and heralded by a “savage cry.” And there are musical reverberations that permeate a few key moments in the score. One of these affects Minnie’s motif – the vibrant and fortissimo exclamation that announces her first appearance in Act I – which, due to its beginning interval on a descending seventh as well as its melodic contour, alludes to the leitmotif associated with Gutrune in Gotterdämmerung and, in particular, to the variant thereof categorized in guides (from Hans von Wolzogen onward) as the “theme of the treachery of love.” Another reflects the reiterated use of the opening of the initial motif found in Tristan und Isolde: a commonplace Wagnerism in Italian opera, widely adopted by Puccini in Manon Lescaut, was the use of the related Tristan Chord. The four notes of which it is composed (a, f, e, d-sharp in Wagner’s original), currently classified as a “theme of suffering”, in Fanciulla appear for the first time in the final duet of Act I, at the point when Johnson attempts to mollify Minnie, who is bent on defending the miners’ gold with her life (“Oh, non temete, nessuno ardirà!”). After which, in Act II, with a harmonization structured on the tritone and a messa in sequenza in the ostinato form which reinforces the original intention of the sorrowful motif, it orchestrally highlights Minnie’s anguish over Johnson’s fate: the episode in which she succors the wounded Johnson (“Su, su, su, presto! Su, salvati!…”), the scene in which she pleads with the merciless Rance (“Aspettate, non può”), the dramatic, final bet (“Una partita a poker!”) until the act closes, in the convulsive moment of exuberance mixed with a desperate cry (“Ah! È mio”).
Beyond these Wagnerian borrowings, as numerous as conceptually unsystematic, a number of other, varied inspirations are found in the score of Fanciulla. One of these is a reformulation of the musical theme of the kiss from Verdi’s Otello in the wispy orchestral arrangement of Johnson’s thrice-requested bacio (II, 25). Another is the atmospheric effect achieved by means of a descending pattern of two tones separated by a fifth, in Act I (from 26 on). Here, as in the Barrière d’enfer (Quadro III) of La Bohème, this is a musical painting of falling snow, this time adapted to the swirling violence of a bitter and hostile En plein air. A final inspiration is a moment of recycling in the final act, in which the sequence of musical reprises is analogous to that found in the fourth quadro of La Bohème.
All in all, in Fanciulla the reformulation and recontextualization of heterogeneous elements seems to be a strategy used quite widely, involving narrative aspects, dramatic situations, musical materials and the structural groundwork for the flow of the music. It should not be interpreted as a simple exhibition of a taste for quotation. It may well be, in keeping with his tendency to compose the drama in differentiated linguistic blocks, to modify the style of stage music in primary narrative elements, and to reduce the Puccinian lyric register into a serviceable musical color, these citations are one of the fundamental terms of the transition from a dramatic style coherently concentrated on the representation of the “pathetic,” the tragic as a desperate feeling of the self, which requires full emotional involvement (following the model of Madama Butterfly), to a dramatic style articulated in its presentation of the “characteristic,” in which a pluristylism and an emotional self-distancing from the subject are essential. A stance that the finale, in its final “dissolve,” with its reprise of the choral melody from Jack Wallace’s nostalgic ballad, seals in a sort of brief tableau, in which the feeling of general commotion is nearly petrified by the total absence of lyric emphasis.
Marginal notes , d’Amico would rightly say. Nevertheless, far more than the coming together of opera, cowboy shows (the opera typically uses live horses on stage) and the nascent Western genre in American film (already embodied in the first decade of the twentieth century by more than a dozen titles), these musical and dramatic annotations written with discontinuity on the margins of the drama mark the beginnings of a new “code” in Puccini’s twentieth century style.  A setting in which Fanciulla, doubtless a work less compact than the short operas of Il Trittico and less polished as far as dramatic-musical makeup is concerned than Turandot, is a high-point in at least one aspect: its happy ending is a “metamorphosis” of character which follows a scheme that the difficulty of composition and Puccini’s limited lifespan would prevent him from accomplishing in the fairytale-mythical context of his last great masterpiece.
By Virgilio Bernardoni. **
Translated by Jonathan Hiller.
Edited by Gary L. Hoffman.
 In particular, see Ashbrook, William and Harold Powers, Puccini’s Turandot. The End of the Great Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
 D’Amico, Fedele. “Naturalismo e decadentismo in Puccini e La Fanciulla del West.” L’albero del bene e del male: naturalismo e decadentismo in Puccini, ed. Jacopo Pellegrini. Lucca, Italy: Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, 2000. pp. 18, 124.
 Letter to Valentino Soldani from 28 June, 1904, in Carteggi pucciniani, ed. Eugenio Gara. Milan: Ricordi, 1958. pp. 277-8, n. 387.
 Letter to Giulio Ricordi, 26 August 1907. ibid p. 353, n. 521.
 Interview of Puccini by Giacinto Cattini, in the “Gazzetta di Torino”, LII, 11 Novembre 1911, p. 3.
 Atlas, Allan W. “Belasco and Puccini: ‘Old Dog Tray’ and the Zuni Indians” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 362-398.
 Girardi, Michele. “Il finale de ‘La Fanciulla del West’ e alcuni problemi di codice,” Opera & Libretto II [Fondazione Giorgio Cini/Studi di Musica Veneta], 1993, pp. 417-37.
* [Editor's Note: This is Psalm 50 in the Vulgate, which is commonly referred to as “The Miserere” (or Prayer of Repentance). This Psalm is David’s confession and plea for mercy after the prophet Nathan rebukes him for committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband, Uriah, murdered.]
[** Prof. Bernardoni is a member of the Dipartimento di Lettere, arti e multimedialità, Università deglistudi di Bergamo. This essay is translated and published with the permission of the author from the original entitled “Le ‘tinte’ della Fanciulla” (2001) (available at http://www.puccini.it/Saggi/saggio%20fanc1.htm).]