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Puccini's 'The Girl of the Golden West'

Giacomo Puccini was never shy when it came to writing operas with exotic settings — or at least settings that seemed exotic to European audiences.

Turandot is set in ancient China. Madame Butterfly is set in Japan, around 1900. The last act of Manon Lescaut takes place on a "vast, arid plain," which somehow turns up on the outskirts of New Orleans.

Still, Puccini may have outdone himself with La Fanciulla del WestThe Girl of the Golden West. In this one, Puccini's signature "verismo" style comes face to face with America's Wild West. It's as though an Italian potboiler has somehow landed in Deadwood! Surely, this is the only opera to feature phrases like, "Whiskey per tutti!" and "Hello regazzi," and to have one of its crucial moments decided by, "una partita a poker."

The story is based on an American drama by David Belasco. Puccini was a big fan of Belasco, who also wrote the play that inspired Madame Butterfly, and there's still a Broadway theater bearing Belasco's name.

Puccini's Fanciulla was premiered in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and it was an all-star affair. Dick Johnson was sung by the legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. Emmy Destinn was Minnie and Arturo Toscanini conducted. It was a popular and critical success from the beginning, but it does contain some of Puccini's most modern-sounding music and not everyone takes a liking to it the first time around. The character of Minnie was also something new for Puccini: She's a tough cookie, unlike the sad, put-upon, mostly doomed leading ladies of his other operas. In Fanciulla, Minnie takes gun, and fate, firmly in hand.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a performance from a more pastoral New York locale than the Metropolitan. It's a production by Glimmerglass Opera, about 10 miles north of Cooperstown.

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