Sometimes you can wait two decades for a new production of a particular opera, only to find three turning up within a year. Until recently Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was a relative rarity on these shores. But with stagings this year at Opera North, Opera Holland Park and now English National Opera, where a new one directed by Richard Jones opens on 2 October, it looks as if this entrancing work’s day has arrived.
It is not before time. The composer regarded it as one of his greatest; leading sopranos put its heroine, Minnie, at the top of their role wish-lists. Yet this piece can raise awkward expectations in a movie-drenched public: it’s an operatic western. Puccini gives his all in the service of a story about miners, bandits and a feisty female saloon owner. Maybe opera-goers are more accustomed to tales of consumptive courtesans perishing by inches in 19th-century Paris.
To Puccini himself, though, the Californian gold rush was wildly romantic; as exotic as those topics he tackled elsewhere, such as the Geisha girls of Japan (Madama Butterfly) or rebellion, torture and passion in 18th-century Rome (Tosca). Basing the opera on David Belasco’s play of the same title – and, so the story goes, inspired by an illicit female muse a little way from his home at Torre del Lago, Tuscany – he set to work at fever pitch. The world premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910.
In Minnie he created a gigantic leading role, requiring great stamina and strength. It is a dream part for sopranos with the right voice and personality to carry it off; today such stars as Eva-Maria Westbroek and Susan Bullock, who takes the lead at ENO, cite it as a top favourite.
A passionate, complex character, with music to match, the saloon keeper Minnie risks all for love. She falls for the mysterious Dick Johnson, only to discover that he is a bandit in disguise. Despite the deception, she is willing to save him – with her own life, if need be – and the opera offers that rare treat: a happy ending.
The Wild West nevertheless may not be its only problem in reaching the modern public’s hearts. It lacks set-pieces that can be plucked out and popularised. There is no show-stopping aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot or ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca that can be played time after time on the radio. Instead, the entire score is magnificent, in a whole different way: it is riveting music-drama, a play set to sophisticated, wonderfully orchestrated, through-composed sonic treats. Take on Fanciulla and you take all or nothing.
Perhaps this gold rush of productions shows that finally we are ready for that. Meanwhile, if operatic westerns are having a moment in the sun, it is maybe time for a British company to present the American composer Charles Wuorinen’s recently premiered opera of Brokeback Mountain.
The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera, from 2 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300