There is no reason that an Italian opera about the wild west should necessarily be any more silly than an Italian opera about, say, sixteenth century Spain. But this opera seems to be very invested in being a sort of set piece – it’s got everything from rifles to poker games to a hangin’, or almost a hangin’. There are even buffoonish Indians! But its setpiece quality is not entirely Puccini’s fault. The opera is based on a play by American author David Belasco, who was one of many late 19th century American writers and playwrights to capitalize on the popularity of stories about the west. According to Wikipedia, “similarities between the libretto and the work of Richard Wagner have also been found.” I guess if one goes out on a limb and assumes some similarities between the libretto and the opera, that would meant that there are also similarities between the opera and the work of Richard Wagner, but I don’t want to push the analysis too far.
The version that I watched was a copy of a live webcast from Vienna. Here is Act I:
Acts II and III available here.
What happens in this opera is that there is a woman – or I guess she’s a girl, since she’s a fanciulla. But normally sixteen-year-olds do not operate saloons, even in California, so she is probably at least of legal age. Let’s call her a young lady.
There is a young lady named Minnie, who runs a saloon in a mining settlement in California during the Gold Rush. All the miners love her. She’s a bit like Wendy to their Lost Boys. They bring her bits of ribbon and little flowers and she gives them reading lessons. It is moderately gag-inducing (there’s something about the infantilized miners that rubs me the wrong way) but this is a Puccini opera; one is aware of running certain risks.
So, Minnie has a saloon, and everyone has gold, which attracts bandits. A representative of Wells Fargo (which is still an actual bank) is hot on the trail of a group of such bandits. The responsibilities of bankers have either broadened or narrowed since 1850; I am not sure which. There is also a local sheriff, Jack Rance, who is obsessed with Minnie.
But then a man with the very interesting name of
Shaft P. Bananahammock Dick Johnson arrives on the scene. He and Minnie have met before and they quickly fall in love. She does not know that he is also Ramerrez the bandit. There is some footling around between Johnson and his fellow bandits about a potential heist of the camp which Dick calls off because he likes Minnie so much.
Act II has Dick visiting Minnie at her cabin. There is some cringe-inducing comic relief in the form of Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit. They are Indians, and although they have a child together, Wowkle has hitherto refused to marry Billy – but he wins her over with the gift of a blanket. Wowkle hangs around for a while during Dick’s visit to Minnie’s cabin and Minnie, sweet soul that she is, gives her a present for the kid.
So anyway, Dick visits Minnie. They confess their love. It begins to snow, and she asks him to stay; the two of them bed down chastely on opposite ends of Minnie’s little house. But then Rance shows up; Dick hides; Rance tells Minnie that Dick is really Ramerrez and flounces out of the cabin; Minnie makes Dick leave; Dick leaves, gets shot and then staggers back in; Minnie takes pity on him and stashes him in her storage alcove; Rance comes back and is about to leave after attempting to strongarm Minnie and getting (in this version at least) a red pump to the groin for his trouble, but then Dick begins to drip blood on him (not on purpose) and the bandit is discovered.
And then Minnie and Rance play poker to decide who gets to keep Dick, who is – at this point – unconscious on the bed, presumably still bleeding. I think Minnie should have demanded that if she wins, in addition to letting her have Dick, Rance also has to buy her a new mattress. Minnie also promises to marry Rance if she loses. But she does win, although she has to cheat in order to do so. (There is a great moment in this production where, during the card scene, Rance (Tomasz Konieczny) asks Minnie (Nina Stemme), “why do you love him?” She retorts “Why do you love me?” and the look on Rance’s face, for a second or two, is along the lines of a startled “I have no idea.”)
(Next section here.)