(Previous section here.)
This was an entertaining few hours, but the opera is so full of references, musical and otherwise, to this other thing, “the wild West,” that I found it hard to really get into. Like the moment in Act I where Minnie says she hasn’t met a man she could love yet, and Rance replies “maybe you have found him!” and in (musically speaking) strolls Aaron Copeland. Puccini’s music references ‘the West’ over and over rather than using the music to show how it felt to be there.
But then again, that isn’t really the point of the opera, is it. Despite all the references and the cartoon Indians and all that, this isn’t really an opera about California. It’s an opera about why people fall in love with one person and not another, with California a sort of convenient and colorful backdrop. It made me wonder why some operas with historical settings work better than others, and the difference is probably in picking a setting that evokes for the audience (accurately or not is another question) a constellation of concerns that map in interesting ways onto what goes on with the characters. With the West, I can see it being used for an opera that was in some way about different and irreconcilable understandings of freedom or order or violence, or the various ways (for better or for worse) that people think about nature versus human nature, or about attempting and failing to reinvent oneself. Puccini’s opera references some of these things, but none of them are really key to the drama. This story doesn’t have to take place in California in 1850.
I guess this is another way of getting at the question that often comes up when operas that ostensibly are set in one time/place are staged so as to put the action in another era – e.g. that Met version of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that took place in the mid-1800s. There were no violently warring Scottish clans any more by then, which caused some bits of the thing not make all that much sense – but the creepy Victorian setting also brought out some of the weird gender politics surrounding constrained choices and madness and violence that lurk in that opera. That is, the setting the production designers picked evoked a series of concerns/themes that mapped in a surprising and revealing way onto what goes on in the opera.