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Puccini In America
New York received the great composer like a god; he responded con brio to its shiny gadgets and beautiful women and produced an “American” opera.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
With the opera’s première out of the way, Puccini was free to attend both plays and vaudeville. His musician’s ear had been caught early by ragtime and by the sorrowful harmonies of Negro music. He was enthralled, too, by stories of the American West. Each evening he went to the theater hopeful of finding a drama which he could set to music, but he reported regretfully that only a few random scenes from the New York stage seemed suitable for opera. But at the end of his stay he found what he was looking for. It was Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West, a creaky but still popular melodrama which Puccini grasped though he understood virtually no English.
The play owed much to Bret Harte. Its heroine was a composite of several of his fictional women, among them Miggles, mistress of the Polka Saloon in Marysville in 1853. Puccini must have recognized the debt. He was delighted too by Belasco’s daring staging and by the banjo, “bones,” and concertina which substituted for a pit orchestra and played “Old Dog Tray,” “Camptown Races,” “Coal Oil Tommy,” “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
Before departing for Europe Puccini told reporters that he would set The Girl to music if Belasco would provide him with a libretto. Belasco agreed.
Puccini had left New York a famous musician, but in 1910 he returned a god. His Bohème, his Butterfly, and his Tosca had captured the hearts of opera-lovers. Now he had assigned the world première of The Girl of the Golden West (he called it La Fanciulla del West) to the Metropolitan, thereby bringing that theater and American music to a new eminence.
On the voyage, Puccini and his entourage occupied the royal suite of the newest luxury liner, the George Washington, and New York was ready with a regal welcome. The world première of The Girl was to be the big moment of that social and theatrical season.
Puccini and David Belasco presided over rehearsals together, the composer to transmit an understanding of the music, the producer to mold the singers into actors for the occasion. It was Toscanini who directed a cast which no theater in the world could conjure up today: Caruso was the bandit, Dick Johnson; the great soprano Emmy Destinn sang Minnie; Pasquale Amato was the villain, Sheriff Jack Ranee. For once Puccini was satisfied. He described Caruso as “magnificent,” Toscanini as “the zenith.”
By the morning of the première, December 10, Broadway in the vicinity of the Metropolitan was jammed with crowds of curious people, hoping for a glimpse of one of the members of the opera’s “golden cast.” By 3 P.M., police had to be called to keep order.
Because it was the most gala of evenings, very few arrived on foot. For hours on end carriages and cars drew up at the Metropolitan’s marquee to discharge their notable passengers. In the side streets chauffeurs cursed and jockeyed for position. The Metropolitan had tried to thwart scalpers by making each buyer sign his ticket at the time of purchase. Now no one was permitted to enter the theater until he had counter-signed and let the doorman compare the signatures.
Inside, high excitement trembled throughout the theater. Then at eight fifteen the lights went down and there was silence. Toscanini raised his baton.
The musicologist Ernest De Weerth, who was in the audience that night, recalls that Toscanini carried every listener straight out of reality and into the world of fantasy with his grand sweep of the music. The Metropolitan’s urbane subscribers forgot their sophistication and rose to shriek their homage to Puccini. Caruso reached a new height, which moved one newspaper critic to write merely: “Ye gods, how he sang!” The public loved the story of Minnie, “the Girl,” and her passionate devotion to the bandit Johnson.
For many years, during the blasé thirties and forties, it became fashionable to look down at The Girl as a bloated melodrama of the Gold Rush era. Today, however, there is a renaissance of interest in this opera; indeed it seems, to the listener of the fifties, no more lurid than the fare served several times each evening on television. Musically the opera struck home at once. The audience thrilled to Puccini’s westernized Italian score, which included ragtime, several Zuni Indian melodies, George M. Cohan’s “Belle of the Barber’s Ball,” and a tear-jerking finale, “Addio, California.”
Puccini, weak with excitement, counted an astounding total of 55 curtain calls, then stood shakily in the midst of the pandemonium to be crowned by the management with a silver wreath. When the shouting had died down, he declared he had never heard anything like it in any theater in the world.