VIRGINIA OPERA’S THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST: IMPORTANT OPERA, WONDERFUL REJUVENATION

The occasion of the Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West offers the opportunity to discuss a man whose name was once almost synonymous with the American theater –

David Belasco.

Belasco (1854-1931) was born in San Francisco, educated by Jesuits, and on the stage from childhood. Author or adaptor of over one hundred plays, he directed over three hundred works by the time he left for New York in 1882 to become the most popular and prominent producer-dramatist in America.

By 1902 Belasco’s success allowed him to acquire his own theater, where he solidified his world-wide reputation as the foremost practitioner of naturalistic staging. He explained his theory:

He who goes direct to nature for the effects he introduces on stage can never be wrong, because nature itself is never wrong”[i]

Real lilac bushes grew before the colonial mansion in his The Heart of Maryland (1895). For The Governor’s Lady (1912) he contracted with the Childs Restaurant chain to build and operate one of their actual businesses on the stage of his theater. For each performance real Childs’ employees prepared and served the day’s Childs food to the characters in the play. For The Easiest Way (1909) he purchased an actual boarding house room and reassembled it on the stage. Belasco would stop people on the street to purchase their clothes if they happened to be wearing something he thought right for a play he was directing.

The famous twelve -minute silent passage from sunset, darkness, to dawn in his play Madame Butterfly (1900) was an international sensation, causing Giacomo Puccini to contract with Belasco to turn his play into an eventual world-wide sensation. Belasco featured materials ordered from France and items worn by the real DuBarry for the play  DuBarry (1902). Likewise, the blizzard in his play The Girl of the Golden West (1905) was a phenomenon. Walter Prichard Eaton describes the play’s place in his canon:

In 1905 came the production of his play, The Girl of the Golden West, with Miss [Blanche] Bates. Here was a play about a life he knew, a land he loved—his golden and romantic California. Here was a bar and a dance hall in a mining town, authentic to the last detail and filled with characters and motion which re­created a period. And here was a gambling sheriff out of Bret Harte and a girl who saved her road-agent lover by a card trick —and of course then redeemed him from a life of crime. Here was atmosphere of unmistakable sincerity, a glow of nostalgic and romantic affection for a vanished corner of America—and unblushing (though at the time and under Belasco’s spell highly effective) trick melodrama.[ii]

His devotion to the dramatic arts won Belasco the title “Bishop of Broadway”; so, he sported  clerical garb.

Eaton summarizes the man who Giacomo Puccini saw as a kindred spirit. Belasco was just the man to turn to once again for a new opera, The Girl of the Golden West:

But this odd child of the theatre, vainer even than most art­ists are, who in adult years wore a clerical collar out of senti­mental regard for the priests who had schooled him at seven, who surrounded himself in his studio with a clutter of rare objects of art and dim lights and muffled gongs, and was only to be reached after parley with a dozen awestruck lackeys, who in spite of the hardships of his youth and his brave battles in New York for an economic foothold knew little and cared less what was going on in the world outside the playhouse, had a passion for artistic unity and perfection and a capacity for unremitting labor in their attainment which made him one of the most in­fluential men in the entire history of our theatre. He was not influential as a dramatist; neither his early training nor his type of intelligence fitted him to grasp post-Ibsen developments. But in most things, that concern bringing a drama to life on the mod­ern stage he was pioneer and perfecter; he taught our crude theatre the lesson of detailed discipline; he brought to it mood and atmosphere and sensuous beauty; above all he showed us that to achieve a final effectiveness one guiding intelligence must rule a theatre. He taught us how to unify the diversified arts of the modern playhouse and make them one art.[iii]

Belasco had opened his California stage play at Pittsburgh’s Belasco Theatre on October 3, 1905. Puccini saw the play after it had transferred to New York’s Academy of Music in January of 1907. The maestro was as overwhelmed by the snowstorm as he had been by Madame Butterfly’s sunset/sunrise. Belasco had assembled a crew of thirty-two artisans to accomplish his storm. He called them “a mechanical orchestra directed by a centrally located conductor.” [iv]

Puccini wanted to base his next opera on the Belasco play. He wrote to him,

I cannot express to you all the admiration I feel for your great talent, and how much impressed I was at the drama I saw at your theatre.”[v]

Puccini made some minor changes in Belasco’s plot. In the play, Minnie reads from Joe Miller’s joke book to the miners. In the opera, she reads from Psalm 51 in the Bible.

This prayer of David is of a murderer and adulterer seeking redemption. Because of the sense of being in the presence of holiness, Psalm 51 is far from being morbid and morose.    Rather it is a prayer of hope. The psalm reminds all that God hears the prayerful contrition of the heart. The liturgical reader of the psalm identifies with the worst of sinners, prays for God’s mercy for himself and for the assembled people as the Church begins to receive Christ in Holy Communion.

With this psalm Puccini reconceived The Girl of the Golden West as a drama of repentance and redemption – “the redemption of Johnson, the bold and passionate adventurer who is saved by the love and self-denial of Minnie”[vi]

But the late American playwright Albert Innaurato detected another note at the end of Puccini’s masterpiece:

She does [save him], after riding in with her pistol in her teeth (!) in Act III. But that isn’t the real end of Fanciulla. Johnson and Minnie vanish — we can hear their voices crying farewell. But the miners are left alone on­stage, singing the minstrel’s song of long­ing. Their last words are “mai piii” —”never more.”

There is a terrible sadness here, one that doesn’t really seem appropriate. But Puccini, the man of the world, knew that second chances are rare, that forgiveness is elusive, that some shame can’t be washed away. I think in his heart he knew that there is something silly in this B-pic­ture happy ending that really leaves noth­ing resolved. In his own secret opera, the longing and loneliness of the miners’ farewell is what really resonated for him. Maybe I’m alone in feeling this way, but I am always moved by the end of Fanciulla. I’m not relieved for Johnson and happy for Minnie but sad for the miners and the composer and all the lonely and lost people who know in their secret hearts that the only consolation life can offer some of us is a sad, simple song.[vii]

Dissatisfied with the end of Belasco’s stage play, Puccini would substitute a scene Belasco had once discarded, a scene in the forest, in which Johnson, about to be hanged, is rescued by Millie.

The Metropolitan Opera arranged for The Girl of the Golden West to be the opera company’s first world premiere. Arturo Toscanini conducted and David Belasco himself supervised the staging – which featured a vertical panorama mounted on window shade-like rollers, and worked with the singers.

At the time, only Chicago’s Mary Garden and Russia’s Fedor Chaliapin attempted to act their singing roles with a stage actor’s technique. Consequently, Belasco directed the Met’s rehearsals intending “to make the artists act as well as sing.”[viii] In addition, he gave the Italians countless lessons on how to throw a lasso and walk like a cowboy. Looking back Belasco concluded,

I came to realize better than ever before how necessary acting is to the lyric artist… Every singer, however great his lyric gift, should be taught – indeed, should be made – to act.

As a result, both Puccini and Toscanini believed The Girl of the Golden West to be Puccini’s “best opera.” And the premiere on December 10, 1910, in an opera house bedecked with American and Italian flags, “proved one of the most spectacular events in the annals of the theatre.[ix] On stage Emmy Destinn, a Czech soprano, presented Minnie, while two Italians, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato presented the rival lovers. Arturo Toscanini conducted Puccini’s music which would become the go-to Ur-score for all subsequent Western composers.

The opera, like the stage play, tells the story of Minnie, the virginal pistol-packing, Bible-reading owner of a Californian gold-rush saloon-bar catering to a community of homesick miners hoping to strike it rich. Minnie is pursued by a love-starved sheriff named Rance, but falls instead for a dashing outlaw named Johnson. (The trio form a classic Western triad of types which would be emulated in subsequent Western films. In John Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach, for example, Minnie becomes Claire Trevor’s Dallas, Rance becomes John Carradine’s Hatfield, and Johnson becomes John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. Minnie is the grandmother of Gunsmoke’s Miss Kittie and Rance the grandpa of that show’s Marshall Dillon.).

For the Virginia Opera, as she did for the original Glimmerglass production, director Lillian Groag takes her inspiration from what drew Puccini to Belasco – naturalism in scenery and costume, psychologically based character acting, and detailed physical pantomimic dramatization. With her brilliant designers John Conklin (scenery) and Constance Hoffman (costume) the production team captured the realistic fidelity of both a majestic Yosemite vista onstage, and the mundane but defining materials and actions of the mere mortals living in its glorious shadow. Adam Greene’s subtle lighting maintained the appropriate moods while subtly highlighting each moment’s focus of attention. Maestro Andrew Bisantz conducted the heroic score with great insight and nuance, though in the early minutes the chorus of miners struggled to be heard over the orchestra.

The casting of the opera was likewise stellar. As Minnie, Jill Gardner’s performance merits nothing less than the words used to describe Emily Destinn’s debut of the role:

She was delightful as Minnie. With her wonderful musical powers she caught the very essence of Puccini’s music. She sang with a liquid beauty of tone, a fine spun delicacy of phrasing, a poetry of vocal interpretation that must go far toward the making of the opera. It was a complete, an irresistible, triumph.”[x]

In addition, Ms. Gardner’s fine acting skills revealed paradoxes of character perhaps not fully understood in the early twentieth century. Mark Walters’ Rance eschewed the “black hat” traditional interpretation of the role. Instead he and director Groag created a sympathetic rival for Minnie’s love, one which strongly suggested Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s great My Darling Clementine. As one of America’s first anti-heroes, Dick Johnson, Roger Honeywell sang and acted almost to perfection.

Shelby Rhoades’ chorus of miners were a superb blend of voices and a diverse variety of types. Making the wandering minstrel Jake Wallace blind was an interesting idea. Unfortunately, the decision to see him as a Western Tiresias led by a young boy could go nowhere in the given script action. The dog did what onstage dogs always do – draw attention from where attention should be.

A very exciting evening of opera at its best. And you won’t find a better directed opera anywhere.

Even the atonal Anton Webern told Arnold Schoenberg in 1919 that The Girl of the Golden West had a

“score with an original sound throughout, splendid, every bar a surprise…. Not a trace of Kitsch…I must say I enjoyed it very much…. Am I wrong?”[xi].

No you are not.

Bravos for all at Virginia Opera. The Girl of the Golden West deserves to be better known, not only for its music, but also for the character types it introduces to the stage. Minnie is one of the first heroines to live through to the end of an opera while dominating the action. Dick Johnson is an early anti-hero, a figure which would grow in frequency as the century progressed.

Shame on those who left their seats empty!

(NOTE: My usual practice is to include a photo of the production program. This time I am not. The poster and program for this production was, like most of the marketing images this season, offensive,  soft sado-masoschistic. Too bad, because the productions deserve better than that!).

[i] Kuritz, Paul. Theater in the Making. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1988, p.348.

[ii] Eaton, Walter Prichard. “Madame Butterfly’s Cocoon: A Sketch of David Belasco”, The American Scholar Vol. 2, Number 5(Spring 1936).

[iii] Eaton. Ibid.

[iv] William Winter. The Life of David Belasco. Volume Two New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1918.

[v] Winter, ibid.

[vi] Puccini, quoted in Carriere della sera. 15 October 1910.

[vii] Innaurato, Albert, “heartbreak Saloon”, Opera News, April 12,1992, 56,15.

[viii] Winter, ibid.

[ix] Budden, Julian. Puccini. His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002, p302.

[x] Algernon St. John-Brenon, New York Telegraph, 11 December 1910.

[xi] Schickling, D. Giacomo Puccini: Biographie. Stuttgart, 1989, p.312.

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