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Classical 101

Double-Barreled Double Bill: La Fanciulla del West and True Grit

We recently lived through a brief but heady period during which the Metropolitan Opera's production of Puccini's Wild West opera La Fanciulla del West and the Coen Brothers' remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit were running simultaneously. After watching the Met's live HD transmission of Fanciulla, I wondered what would happen if I put it and the new True Grit in a bag together, so to speak, and let nature take its course. Which of these spaghetti westerns would come out with fewer scratches? Which would better represent the hard-scrabble American West of the gun-slinging days of yore? I also sought to answer a few more specific questions with this little experiment:

  • In the great spaghetti western film tradition, would a man who has traversed the globe to prospect for gold in the rough-and-tumble American West really retire to the nearby saloon after a hard day of panning and sing an aria about missing his mother?
  • Would the barmaid and the Bible school teacher really be the same person?
  • Would there really be a happy ending like the one Puccini gives us, or would the film narratives from beginning to bitter end give us the rough-edged reality of those wanton times in that untamed place?

But really, I wanted to know whether - no, to reassure myself that - a film western would pack more of a punch than Puccini's would-be western opera. And, though I am far from a violent person, if I were truly to bare my soul, I longed to reach the good, the bad and the ugly depths of the tough guys, gun fights, bar room brawls and other forms of brutal reality that Puccini's opera only flirts with. In short, I wanted in my westerns - films and operas - what the Coen Brothers' precocious 14-year-old protagonist, Mattie Ross, wanted in her U.S. marshal: true grit. The Met had its work cut out for it with Fanciulla. While the opera that Puccini composed specifically for the Met a century ago has its share of technical intricacies, big-league opera companies generally make child's play out of difficult vocal lines, challenging stagings, wardrobe malfunctions and the like. Here, the Met was no exception. Soprano Deborah Voigt was in beautiful voice as the title character, Minnie; tenor Marcello Giordani (Dick Johnson) likewise sang well and baritone Lucio Gallo's voice was all whiskey and horses as the opera's most interesting (and arguably its smarmiest) character, Sheriff Jack Rance. The problem with this opera is how its librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini drew its characters. Deborah Voigt lighted on this most delicately in one of the live HD transmission's intermission features. When asked about the challenges of singing Minnie, Voigt made nothing of the high notes, but said it's difficult to get a handle on who Minnie is. I might say that trying to grasp all of Fanciulla's characters is rather like hugging a life-size cardboard cut-out. There's just not much meat to hold onto. So Puccini's characters are problematic, but did he know this? I'm not so sure. In setting his opera in Gold Rush-era California, Puccini was continuing his grand tour of exotic (to the European opera-going classes) places whose previous ports of call included a garret in Paris' Latin Quarter with La Bohème and Japan with Madama Butterfly. To Europeans, the craggy American West, with its cowboys and Indians, its brothels and buckaroos, was as exotic as anywhere else. And to aim to represent such an exotic place with as much graphic realism - verismo - as possible was to claim show us at least a first cousin of the place itself. The problem is that, despite its parentage in the same Latin word that gave us the word for "truth," verismo lies. And only those who know the truth see through the lies. I lament bitterly the fate of Mimì, all that beauty and gracefulness lost so young to the ravages of consumption. I weep buckets during Madama Butterfly so caught up am I with Cio-Cio San's plight and with her good and loyal heart, which Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton will break and whose beating she herself will silence. But I've never been a consumptive Parisian or the stereotypical blushing Japanese bride, so with my disbelief willfully suspended, I know no better. But as an American, I know that Puccini's Wild West was lying to me. It lied to me with the most cosmopolitan of European accents when it told me that Minnie, who says she has thirty dollars' worth of education and lives in a cabin halfway up the mountain, has a staff of two Native Americans (a third in papoose) from whom she orders dinner for her assignation with Dick Johnson. It also lied to me when Minnie and Dick Johnson left the stage at the end of the opera singing their farewells to California beneath the protective eye of a chorus of rough-and-tumble gold miners. Real Wild West Americans just don't do these things, do they? This question, in a way, brings me to True Grit by way of a few more words about Minnie. Even if Minnie, like all of Puccini's characters, takes advantage of us, there is one scene in Fanciulla that rings true. In a desperate attempt to save Dick Johnson's life, Minnie challenges Sheriff  Jack Rance to poker, best two hands out of three. If she wins, Johnson stays with her; if she loses, he's hauled off by Rance. It's a game Minnie knows she cannot leave to chance, so she does what anyone steeped in bandit culture would do: she cheats. In the most gripping moments of the opera, we see the real, the true Minnie and through her, catch a fleeting glimpse of the real American West. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsSLvovPDTc

The "card scene" of La Fanciulla del West

This Minnie is the spiritual grandmother of True Grit's Mattie Ross, a girl of 14, willful and far too smart for her own good, who takes off with a U.S. marshal and a Texas sheriff to avenge her father's murder. It's a storyline as far from likely as Nagasaki is from Paris; still, the film tells the truth. And just as the Minnie of the poker game rescues her opera from the gallows of deceit, it is True Grit's Mattie who steps beyond stereotype and caricature and takes her film with her into truth. In True Grit we still have no shortage of stock characters: the one-eyed marshal Reuben Cogburn on the downslope of his sharp-shooting career; the sheriff, by turns a tough-love father figure and a Texas gentleman proto-love interest to Mattie; the bandits and the woodsmen. None of these cut-out characters sings about missing Mama. But Mattie enters, and all those types are thrown off their script and onto hers. She makes the story real. So I did get tougher tough guys in True Grit than I did in Fanciulla. But Mattie Ross brought the really true grit, just as did Minnie the golden girl-turned-card-shark in La Fanciulla del West. More than that - they brought dramatic truth.