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MUSIC : 'Fanciulla del West' Is Wild Tale of Outlaw Love

June 06, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Quick. What opera ends (just about) with the immortal words, "Addio, mia California" ?

Answer: Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West.". As the two lovers mount their horses to ride off into the sunset, they turn toward the Forty-Niners they're leaving behind and they sing:

"Addio, mia California! Bei monti della Sierra, nevi, addio!" ("Goodby, my California! Lovely Sierra peaks, snows, goodby!")

Opera-goers used to the typically pathetic Puccini heroines who suffer and die for love are in for a surprise when they encounter pistol-packing Minnie, the heroine of "Fanciulla," which the Los Angeles Music Center Opera is bringing to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Saturday in a production by the Lyric Opera Company of Chicago.

Minnie runs the Polka Saloon in California's Cloudy Mountains (wherever they are). All the miners, not to mention the sheriff, are in love with her. But she remains unsmitten.

Then, one fateful day, outlaw Jack Johnson (a.k.a. Ramerrez the bandit) comes to the saloon to rob her and the miners. But he falls in love with Minnie too--and this time she falls back. Eventually, Minnie has to outface the miners when they're about to string Johnson up from the nearest tree.

Puccini based his opera upon David Belasco's 1905 play "The Girl of the Golden West," which he saw during a visit to New York. Belasco had already provided the composer with the idea for "Madama Butterfly."

Puccini wanted to move into new musical directions, in part because he had been criticized for repeating himself in his latest works, but also because he himself was tired of his earlier heroines and style. For this new work, he envisioned a tighter dramatic and musical structure, with fewer excerptable big arias and duets.

But going against his own style proved more difficult that he expected. Worse, his efforts were interrupted when a domestic tragedy exploded into a national scandal.

Puccini's insanely jealous wife, Elvira, accused her servant girl, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with Puccini. Elvira persecuted and humiliated Doria in public until the despondent girl committed suicide. When an autopsy showed that Doria had died a virgin, her parents sued Elvira for public defamation and won the case.

Elvira began to appeal the verdict, but Puccini not-so-discretely offered the Manfredis enough money to withdraw from the suit. All this created a sensation in Italy and for a while deeply blocked Puccini's creativity.

Eventually, he finished the work. Because "Fanciulla" was an "American" opera, the Metropolitan managed to snag the premiere, which was greeted by a rapturous audience on Dec. 10, 1910. And why not? Look at the all-star cast: Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson, Pasquale Amato as Rance, the sheriff. Toscanini conducted. (Here, the roles will be sung by Gwyneth Jones, Placido Domingo, and Justino Diaz respectively, with Richard Buckley conducting.)

There were even eight horses onstage at the Met, just as the composer wished, for the scene in which the miners hunt Johnson down. At the end of the evening, the audience gave the singers and the composer no fewer than 52 curtain calls, and Met manager Guilio Gatti-Casazza placed a silver crown--adorned with red, green and white ribbons, the national colors of Italy--upon Puccini's head.

The triumph was short-lived, though. "Fanciulla" never became as popular as "La Boheme," "Tosca" or "Butterfly." Maybe there just aren't enough hit tunes. Later productions even omitted the horses. Don't look for any at the Center.

What: The Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Giacomo Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West," presented by the Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

When: Saturday, June 8, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: One block east of the South Coast Plaza mall.

Wherewithal: $20 to $80.

Where to Call: (714) 556-2787.

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