November 13, 2017

Puccini's "Girl": Three operas in one act!

Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato,
the original Minnie and Rance
Milton Berle, the famous mid-20th century practitioner and scholar of comedy, once declared that there are three basic jokes. All jokes, he maintained, were variations of one of those seminal three.

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.

  • 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.)
  • 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!


  1. Enjoyed, as always, your pre-performance talk this afternoon at George Mason for "Lan Fanciulla del West." Neither my wife nor I had ever heard it, so your talk went a long way towards helping us know what to listen for, especially the leitmotifs.

    Your bringing up the idea of redemption sparked a thought in my mind. For a number of years, I've annoyed my wife by observing that certain movies, novels, and operas have a character who is an analogue of Jesus. There's "The Shawshank Redemption," "Slingblade," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Cool Hand Luke," to name a few. You can argue that Liu, in "Turandot," could qualify. The Jesus analogue typically suffers in the process of redeeming the lives of other characters, and if he/she doesn't actually die, departs the scene, leaving everyone else wondering where he/she went.

    So naturally, at the end of "Fanciulla," I irritated my wife by suggesting that Minnie is Jesus. Hear me out...

    1) In a nest of rough, sometimes violent miners, she brings calm and peace; she arrives on the scene in the middle of a brawl, and a few minutes later, they're rapt with attention as she reads Psalm 51 from the Bible to them - a psalm about redemption.

    2) Like Jesus, she is pure, without sin. The "original sin" is sexual intercourse, and she hasn't even been kissed, let alone engaged in sex.

    3) Like Jesus, she saves/redeems the thief - where Jesus saved his thief on the cross, Minnie saves hers on the gallows. She announces that the thief "died" in her cabin; Ramirez is no more, but has been "reborn" as Dick.

    4) See suffers in order to redeem Dick, taking a bullet in the arm in coming to his rescue.

    5) At the end of the opera, she turns the unanimous hatred of all the miners to love, one by one.

    6) Finally, Minnie and the man she has saved depart for... well, no one knows where they're going. But since the two of them established, in Act 1, that they each see wonderful qualities in the other, you have to assume they're going to a better place. Not literally heaven, but that's what allegories are for.

    I searched the internet, sure that I wasn't the first person to observe this, but came up empty. Do you know of anyone else who might have made this claim for Minnie? Was this something that Puccini or his librettist might have done intentionally?

  2. Pretty sure there is even a short musical phrase in Girl that echoes one in least I've often thought that. Don't ask me where, it's been a while.