Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato,
the original Minnie and Rance
Perhaps it works that way with story-telling as well; specifically, perhaps it works that way for opera libretti. At the very least, certain characters and certain scenarios appear to pop up in the repertoire time and again:
- wily servants outwitting their pompous masters (Thanks, commedia dell'arte!)
- tales of vengeance in which both the avenger and his/her target come to ruin
and so on. But since Virginia Opera is currently mounting Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West, I'll focus on that with a startling observation.
The formal structure of act II of Girl combines the structures of the second acts of Puccini's two previous operas: Madama Butterfly and Tosca.
That's odd, seeing as how the composer's options were limited. After all, he was more or less bound by the nature of his source material, David Belasco's 1905 Broadway play. Yet, the similarities with the other operas are clearly present. Here's what I mean.
BUTTERFLY VERSUS GIRL
- Act II of Butterfly begins with Suzuki, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a Buddhist prayer with a monotonous vocal line as the orchestra toggles back and forth in whole steps.
- Act II of Girl opens with Wowkle, a mezzo-soprano maid, intoning a lullaby with a monotonous vocal line that toggles back and forth in whole steps.
- Cio-cio-san, having spotted Pinkerton's ship in the harbor, is full of joyous anticipation of his return. She and Suzuki prepare for his arrival by decorating their little house with flower petals.But when Pinkerton arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: he's married to another woman.
- Minnie, having invited Dick Johnson to her cabin, is full of joyous anticipation. She and Wowkle prepare for his arrival by setting out cookies and cream. But when Dick arrives, it's a crushing disappointment: Minnie learns that another woman has been his lover. (She also learns that he's a criminal, but it's the revelation of Mexican harlot Nina Micheltorena that breaks her heart.)
TOSCA VERSUS GIRL
- In Tosca, Baron Scarpia (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Tosca, but she rejects his advances.
- In Girl, Jack Rance (the baritone, who is an officer of the law) lusts after Minnie, but she rejects his advances.
- Scarpia physically injures Cavaradossi (Tosca's lover) by subjecting him to torture
- Rance physically injures Johnson by shooting him.
- Tosca attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Scarpia: she will yield her body to him in exchange for Cavaradossi's life
- Minnie attempts to save her lover's life by negotiating a transaction with Rance via a game of poker. If he wins, she will yield her body to him - as well as turning over Johnson to him.
Weird, isn't it? Obviously, the question arises: was Puccini aware of these parallels? Well, he wasn't an idiot; I don't see how could have failed to make the connection. That leads to the next question: was this a deliberate ploy? In other words, did the composer think "Hey, these plot twists were dynamite in the last two shows; I think I'll recycle 'em for this one"?
That's trickier. Puccini's dead; I can't interview him to confirm his thinking. And nothing in his published letters discusses these plot connections.
Again, the entire sequence of baritone-injures-lover-leading-lady-offers-body-to-save-him is dictated by Belasco's melodrama.
This is why I believe there are certain seminal essential plots in story-telling that recur over and over. Puccini may simply have happened to re-utilize these particular elements in close proximity.
Finally, lest you think I have failed to notice it, we must differentiate one important distinction between Scarpia and Rance: Scarpia was a liar who did NOT keep his end of Tosca's bargain. Whatever we think of Sheriff Rance, he at least had enough of a code of honor to keep his promise. The result? The rare Italian operatic drama in which no one dies! O meraviglia! O gioia! Addio, California!