Puccini's La fanciulla del West 100 years ago
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.)
Proof 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:
with the same passage 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.
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”:
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:
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:
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:
Perhaps the soaring notes were an affirmation of Caruso’s impressive high notes - and his star power.
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:
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.
And finally, a unique photograph of the final scene from La fanciulla del West, showing the entire Met stage and elevation.