November 4, 2017

Puccini's Minnie: a different kind of diva

Enrico Caruso as Dick Johnson:
Conflict begets immortality
As pointed out in last week's post, the Act I orchestral prelude to Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West functions as a thumbnail of the entire opera. Two contrasting themes (A and B) are heard twice each. A is meant to depict the harsh physical environment of the California wilderness; the chaos of rough-and-ready frontier justice in which men were lynched without due process; and (in general terms) sin and spiritual darkness. B, on the other hand, stands for order, hope and redemption. The prelude ends with the theme of Ramerrez.

What we're meant to infer is this: the opera's focus will be on the redemption of Ramerrez, whose "secret identity" is the American Dick Johnson, via the love of a virtuous woman, namely Minnie (the "Girl" of the title). The implied duality of the A and B themes define Ramerrez, as we shall see. The result is a curious musical imbalance in the treatment of the two main characters.

Operatic music is at its most compelling and memorable when its characters are facing some sort of adversity. They must be tortured; desperate; conflicted - THAT'S the soil from which musical immortality blossoms.

With this in mind, it's apparent that, while Minnie is in several respects a great role, the unusual nature of her character deprives her of great arias. Puccini had simply never created a character like Minnie before. (Yes, I know, she was "created" by David Belasco. I mean, of course, Minnie as a musical "creation".) Think about it:
  • Manon Lescaut was deeply conflicted between her love for a poor boy and her desire for a life of wealth and privilege. She is assigned two sure-fire applause-getting arias: "In quelle trine morbide", and her death scene, "Sola, perduta, abbandonata".
  • Mimi was dying; doomed by tuberculosis. Her beloved arias include "Mi chiamono Mimi" and "Addio senza rancor" Big ovations are standard.
  • Tosca was tormented by pathological jealousy and a hair-trigger temper. Audiences eat up her great outpouring of torment, "Vissi d'arte".
  • Cio-cio-san was rejected by her family and abandoned by her husband; even people who don't care much about opera know "Un bel di".
Minnie, on the other hand, is a big, healthy, happy American tomboy. Minnie's "as corny as Kansas in August", Minnie's "as normal as blueberry pie". And this affects her solos. 

Understand me: Minnie doesn't lack for great vocal moments or compelling dramatic moments. But her two solos are "Laggiu nel Soledad" in Act I and "Oh se sapeste" in Act II.

Ever heard of those? Unless you're a true opera maven, probably not. And these solos have no life on the concert or recital stage; they are only heard in the context of a complete production of the opera. The issue here is two-fold: 
  1. Minnie isn't conflicted. The first aria is a warm reminiscence of her parents' happy marriage; the second aria is a rhapsodic description of her happy (there's that word again...) life in the mountains with her pony and fields of flowers, etc. etc. The arias are charming; well-crafted; pleasing; even beautiful. But they are NOT the kind of material that produces gooseflesh or tears or the lump in the throat.
  2. Puccini had been studying Wagner and Richard Strauss in recent years, particularly Parsifal and Salome. Their influence is strongly heard in Girl of the Golden West. Minnie's arias are not set-pieces designed to elicit an ovation from the audience. Unlike "Vissi d'arte", they have no traditional structure like verse-refrain or ABA, providing listeners with repeated, recognizable tunes. And they lack a "button" at the end; indeed, like his German models, Puccini took care to see that all solos are immediately followed by dialogue, snuffing out the opportunity for an ovation. Minnie also seems to echo the persona of several Wagnerian heroines beginning with Senta: the "Eternal Feminine" who provides redemption to a hero. 
But don't feel sorry for this gun-totin', whiskey-drinkin' card-playin' gal. The role rises to its own kind of heights, both vocal and dramatic:
  • The love duet with Johnson in Act II is the stuff dear to a Puccini-lover's heart;
  • The end of Act II, from the wounding of Ramerrez through the poker game, calls for acting chops of Meryl Streep dimensions. Minnie cannot stand in place and warble prettily! This scene demands an actress who will commit to a roller-coaster of larger-than-life emotional states; an actress who will "go for it".
  • Finally, the Act III scene in which Minnie pleads for her lover's life is a fabulous solo with chorus that rises to an impressive climax. It's just that this material relies on the backdrop of the miners and cannot be excised out of the complete opera for concert performance.
If it's compelling, passionate solos you want, solos reflecting drama born of conflict and torment, then I refer you to our hero, Ramerrez/Dick. He's a thief, but comes to feel ashamed of his past. In addition, he embodies the racial tensions that beset Gold Rush country in the late 1840's following the end of the Mexican-American war. He has a dual identity: Mexican and American, each struggling to dominate. His passion and shame and conflicted nature is transmitted viscerally in Act I's "Quello che tacete"; his confessional monologue of Act II; and his famous aria "Ch'ella mi creda" in Act III. That aria, by the way, is often heard in recital and concert; it's a retro stand-alone show-piece.

Minnie's moments of desperation are situational and temporary; they aren't an inherent, organic element of her personality. Dick is the character who is a "hot mess"; accordingly, his are the solos that generate heat. 

Finally, take note of the opposing directions of the two character arcs:
  • Dick Johnson is on an ascending spiritual journey. As the scenes unfold, he becomes more and more virtuous;
  • Minnie, on the other hand, gradually descends from her original plateau of high moral virtue. This all-American girl, a Bible teacher who has never been kissed, hides a criminal from the posse seeking to bring him to justice. She lies to the Sheriff repeatedly to protect that criminal. And, worst of all, she cheats at cards to gain his safety, knowing that such cheating is a capital offense in her tight-knit community. She is LOSING virtue simultaneously with Dick's steady moral GAIN. 
And you and I root for her! What a girl.....

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