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Puccini's La fanciulla del West 100 years ago

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La fanciulla del West - final scene as shown in a frequently reproduced photographLa fanciulla del West - final scene as shown in a frequently reproduced photograph

The December 10, 2010 performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production (which opens tonight) of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West will mark the 100th anniversary of the opera, which had its premiere at the Met on the same date in 1910 featuring a stellar cast of Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato with Arturo Toscanini conducting.  Puccini had been on hand during the rehearsal period, and, in an unusual move, David Belasco, the original play’s author,  “worked on every detail of this production, overseeing the design and stage direction” (quotation from the Met’s online database for the performance of Dec. 10, 1910).

The Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is fortunate to have a number of unique documents related to the beginnings of La fanciulla del West.  One of the most notable is a pre-publication copy (known colloquially as a “proof” copy) of the vocal score which has been annotated by Puccini and Toscanini, and is now found in Toscanini’s personal papers, known as the Toscanini Legacy. (Excepting the first, all photographs in this post come from the Toscanini Legacy.)

La fanciulla del West - act 3 cover of proof copyLa fanciulla del West - act 3 cover of proof copyProof copies are sent to authors to make final corrections prior to publication.  Some authors tend to rethink parts of their work before giving a final ok, so their proof copies become interesting since they have passages that were later rethought and revised.

I’m always fascinated to see a composer or performer make revisions to a text, particularly when they show  attention to detail.  Such alterations can offer unique insights into authors’ working methods.

In this case, we are lucky that Puccini tended to always rework his compositions, so much so that sometimes there are questions as to what is the proper and accurate text of his operas.

Compare this passage from act 3 in the current vocal score:

La fanciulla del West - act 3, "Strappatela di là!" (Jack tells Minnie to move away)La fanciulla del West - act 3, "Strappatela di là!" (Jack tells Minnie to move away)

with the same passage in the proof copy:

a fanciulla del West - act 3, "Strappatela di là!" in the proof copya fanciulla del West - act 3, "Strappatela di là!" in the proof copy

This is the dramatic climax of the opera.  Minnie has arrived to save Dick Johnson from being hanged by Sheriff Jack Rance.  Jack tells Minnie to step away from the noose by singing, “Strappatela di là!” with quick 16th notes.  Apparently during rehearsals Puccini had Pasquale Amato (the Jack Rance of the world premiere) broaden the rhythm, probably so that the words would be heard more clearly.  

Pasquale Amato, the first Jack Rance in La fanciulla del WestPasquale Amato, the first Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West

Pencilled with Puccini’s handwriting, this change has not been adopted for other productions and appears only in this score.

Here’s another interesting alteration, this time from act 1.  Minnie has just read an except from the bible, and all the cowboys are held in rapture by the lesson.  Their silence is then suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the mail boy.  In current vocal scores, the passage appears as follows, where the change in mood is indicated by the tempo marking “Allegro vivo”:

La fanciulla del West - end of the bible reading sceneLa fanciulla del West - end of the bible reading scene

But the proof copy indicates that, originally, the character Billy Jackrabbit entered at this point and other characters acknowledged him by singing a few words of dialogue, prior to the mail boy’s entrance:

La fanciulla del West - end of the bible reading scene in the proof scoreLa fanciulla del West - end of the bible reading scene in the proof score

Puccini eventually recognized the abrupt change from bible lesson to mail call created greater dramatic impact, so he eliminated Billy’s entrance and the connecting dialogue.

One of the most dramatic changes occurs in act 2 between Minnie and Dick Johnson.  Johnson tries to convince Minnie of the sincerity of his feelings toward her, but she repulses him and asks him to leave (just before he is shot and wounded).  “La mia vergogna! Ahimè!” he sings, soaring with the orchestra, as he expresses remorse over his former life as a bandit:

 Johnson expresses remorse for his pastLa fanciulla del West - Act 2: Johnson expresses remorse for his past

But the proof copy shows that Johnson’s high notes were a late addition.  In this case, it is Toscanini who has pencilled in the changes that we now recognize:

La fanciulla del West - Johnson expresses remorse for his past as seen in the proof scoreLa fanciulla del West - Johnson expresses remorse for his past as seen in the proof score

Perhaps the soaring notes were an affirmation of Caruso’s impressive high notes - and his star power.

Enrico Caruso dressed as Dick Johnson for the world premiere of La fanciulla del WestEnrico Caruso dressed as Dick Johnson for the world premiere of La fanciulla del West

These are a few of the alterations to be found in proof copy.  A postscript to this fascinating score is the back cover, which contains some harp figurations written by Toscanini:

Rear cover of the proof score with Toscanini's figurations for harpRear cover of the proof score with Toscanini's figurations for harp

While today Internet social networking helps to connect people to one another, this unique document embodies musicians' social networking from a century ago among composer, conductor, and two of the principals of the world premiere.  We can be thankful to Toscanini for preserving this score, allowing us observe how these changes came about during rehearsals for the world premiere.

In spite of their complicated relationship, it’s fascinating to see a document showing two giants of music, Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini, participating in the creation of a work which has become part of the standard operatic repertoire.

Giacomo Puccini (left) and Arturo Toscanini (right) in 1910Giacomo Puccini (left) and Arturo Toscanini (right) in 1910

And finally, a unique photograph of the final scene from La fanciulla del West, showing the entire Met stage and elevation.

La fanciulla del West - final scene, uncroppedLa fanciulla del West - final scene, uncropped

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I find it fascinating to

I find it fascinating to literally see the mind of a master at work. Thank you for the insight that this page gives to one of the greatest operas of one of the greatest composers.

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