The Golden Girl Turns 100, But What Would Puccini Think?

100 years ago, David Belasco’s popular play, “The Girl of the Golden West” premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  Set to music by Puccini and conducted by Arturo Toscanini, the premiere of Fanciulla del West inspired the meeting of American “Cowboy” culture with the passionate European musical palate.  Fanciulla is an opera about redemption, about love, and contrary to popular opinion (as of late) about singing.  The singers who performed the opera at the Met 100 years ago are historically connected to the work, not just because they sang it, but because Puccini wrote the roles of Minnie, Jack Rance, and Dick Johnson especially for them.  Those singers were Emmy Destinn, Pasquale Amato, and Enrico Caruso.

The original Minnie, Emmy Destinn

Therefore, in order to produce an accurate staging of Fanciulla, at least an historical one, it is relevant to know what those singer’s voices were, especially since the composer created the roles specifically for them.  Enrico Caruso’s voice really requires no explanation, for those of us who are opera afficionadi; Pasquale Amato and Emmy Destinn, however, prove interesting.

Baritone, Pasquale Amato

Amato was born in Napoli in 1878 and was for all intents and purposes and Italian operatic baritone.  He was popular in Italy, but achieved the majority of his success in New York City, where he was employed at the Metropolitan opera from 1908 until 1921. His teacher, Beniamino Carelli also taught Enrico Caruso and so they shared similar aesthetic qualities in singing.  Interestingly, the cast of Caruso, Amato, and Destinn performed regularly together for the unity and homogeneity of their voices. His voice according according to Michael Scott in “The Record of Singing,” had a “ringing vibrant tone that could not be confused with that of any other baritone. He possessed plenty of carrying power, masterful phrasing and cantabile.” He died in Queens, N.Y. on August 12, 1942.

Destinn, on the other hand, was also known as Ema Destinnová, who was born in 1878 and known as a Czech operatic soprano.  She was well known to sing Italian opera in Dresden, Prague, and Berlin, and was the original Salome in Richard Strauss’ Salome.  She debuted at the Met in Verdi’s Aida in 1908.  While she was successful in lighter Wagnerian roles, her voice was best suited to the lyrical Italian repertoire.  Her career was halted during World War 1, when she returned to her homeland whereupon her passport was revoked.  She returned to the Met in 1919 but had by then been replaced by a new generation of singers.  The voice was versatile and powerful of long cantabile lines.

What is interesting in this upcoming anniversary of Fanciulla is that the voices chosen to sing do not meld like those that were meant to perform the role.  As of now, the Met has cast Deborah Voigt as Minnie, Marcello Giordani as Dick Johnson, and Juha Uusitalo as Jack Rance.  The opera will be conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti.  Although these singers are reputable and well known for many wonderful performances, as a historian this conglomeration of singers is a little off-putting, especially since the Puccinian tinta is one that contributes to the opera’s authenticity.  Unfortunately, this season, the result of several miscast operas has produced the very effect that I hope the Met will try to avoid in the future.  Casting German voices in Italian repertoire and vice-versa actually mars authenticity and that means that the performance fails to create an historically accurate presentation.  Now, of course, we aren’t going to find another Caruso to sing Johnson; even if Mr. Giordani has a viable instrument, it is rather the combination of voices and the necessity for accento puro that will affect this production of Fanciulla if it isn’t properly coached.  Since this is the 100th year anniversary of an opera that is beloved to historians, opera lovers, and singers alike, it is my hope that the Met will view these important historical revivals as they are meant to be viewed.  How about considering what the composer asked for and decided was right?  


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