Entertainment Music

Saturday 16 December 2017

Puccini went into the west and opera audiences went wild

George Hamilton

As opening nights go, it was one of the greats. The New York Met was staging its very first world premiere and the city's opera lovers responded with delight.

Not that getting tickets for the show was straightforward. Scalpers had been on the case, seeking $150 for a pair -- a lot of money for 1910. But then this was a special event, the latest offering from the golden boy of his generation, Giacomo Puccini.

The man whose reputation had soared over two decades of success with Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca, and Madam Butterfly, was now about to sweep America off its feet once again, only this time with something specifically western.

When Puccini had been in New York some years before to oversee Butterfly's first performance there, he'd become quite taken with the place, in particular the old cowboy culture. On Broadway, he'd seen a play that had bowled him over, and it sowed the seeds of the big first night at the Met.

The Girl of the Golden West -- the show that had captured the composer's imagination -- in his hands became the opera La Fanciulla del West.

The rough and tumble of the California Gold Rush might seem an unlikely background for high end musical drama. But it hit the spot at the time, even if, unusually for a Puccini production, nobody got killed. That in itself is surprising, for at the heart of the story is a female lead -- Minnie -- owner of the local saloon and a good-living girl who takes it upon herself to mind the prospectors and their precious gold . . . with the help of a shotgun.

Among the men, of course, is the handsome hero who falls for Minnie, and there's also the local sheriff, another Minnie admirer, who succeeds in unmasking her love interest as a bandit. It all ends happily, though, when Minnie steps in and saves her man from the lynch mob.

It was an all-star cast at the Met that night. Toscanini conducted, the top Czech soprano Emmy Destinn played Minnie opposite Caruso, a pairing that had filled the lead roles when Madam Butterfly was first staged in London five years before.

The New York Times described a sensational reception. Never mind how much they roared their approval at the finish -- there had been 14 curtain calls at the end of act one, and no fewer than 19 at the end of act two. "Women split their gloves applauding," the paper reported.

The acclamation on this night in 1910 -- the New York premiere was on December 10 -- faded across the century that followed. The Ultimate Puccini Opera Album -- the Naxos tribute on double CD (8.578066-67) released last year -- doesn't contain a single song from La Fanciulla.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning


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