Variations on a Theme by Puccini: Theologizing La fanciulla del West

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By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

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Giacomo Puccini, La fanciulla del West

“Whiskey per tutti!” “Benvenuto fra noi, Johnson di Sacramento!” “Una buona giornata per Wells Fargo!” (Puccini 11, 23, 50). La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the West”), Giacomo Puccini’s opera set in the Wild West, is notorious for the jarring presence of American names in an Italian libretto, with English words like “poker” and “polka” jutting out stonily from the flow of song. If one can get beyond the lexical oddities—and, it must be acknowledged, some awfully problematic depictions of Native Americans—Fanciulla is musically spellbinding, its distinctive soundscape defined by the near-total absence of female voices (reflecting the skewed gender distribution of mining camps in the Old West). That said, Puccini’s score does not feature the barnstorming arias that dominate his other operas, as “Vissi d’arte” does Tosca, “Un bel dì vedremo” does Madame Butterfly, and, of course, “Nessun dorma” does Turandot.

One of the few set-pieces Puccini does create for his singers comes in Act I, when Minnie, the titular girl, gives a Bible lesson to some of the miners, culminating in the soprano’s brief, beautiful rendition of Psalm 51:7, 10.

Aspergimi d’issòpo e sarò mondo […] Lavami e sarò bianco come neve. Poni dentro al mio petto un puro cuore, e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto. (18)

Or, as the King James Version has it: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. […] Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

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Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie at the Metropolitan Opera, photo credit Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera.

Pausing here, Minnie explains,

Ciò vuol dire, ragazzi, che non v’è, al mondo, peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione. Sappia ognuno di voi chiudere in se questa suprema verità d’amore. (18)

Which is to say, boys, that there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open. May each of you learn how to hold this supreme truth of love within you.

This hopeful sentiment will stand her in good stead two acts later, when the opera climaxes with Minnie convincing the miners to pardon her (repentant) bandit lover, Dick Johnson. This she does by reminding them of her lessons and her compassionate gloss on Psalm 51:

Torno quella che fui per voi, l’amica, la sorella che un giorno v’insegnò una suprema verità d’amore: fratelli, non v’è al mondo peccatore cui non s’apra una via di redenzione! (60)

I am what once I was to you, the friend and the sister, who once taught you the supreme truth of love: brothers, there is no sinner in the world to whom a path to redemption is not open!

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Giacomo Puccini

Puccini, of course, was a composer, not a theologian. That Minnie’s Psalm puzzled and startled me is due entirely to my own idées fixes. But puzzled and startled I was, for the Bible study at the Polka saloon sets up a curious theological problem within Fanciulla.

The scene is partly drawn from the opera’s source text, David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West (1905), but it has been utterly transformed by Puccini’s librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini. Belasco has Minnie teach not from the Bible, but from Old Joe Miller’s Jokes; not only do Civinini and Zangarini provide a more edifying textbook, they move the schoolroom scene to the first, rather than the third act, thus “carefully set[ting] up the redemption theme” that Puccini wanted to “hover over the whole work” (Rosen 290 and 289n62, respectively).

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Carlo Zangarini

Now, the opera does not tell us anything outright about Minnie’s denominational background, but we do get a clue or two from Civinini and Zangarini’s libretto. If nothing else, that Minnie refers to the psalm beginning “Have mercy upon me, O God” as Psalm 51 points to Protestantism, or at least a Protestant Bible: in a Roman Catholic Bible, using the numbering of the Vulgate, the text would be Psalm 52.

More suggestive still is Civinini and Zangarini’s Italian text of verse 51:10: “e rinnovella in me uno spirito eletto”—“and renew in me an elect spirit” (italics mine). The standard Protestant Italian text of Scripture, the Diodati Bible, gives the second verset of Psalm 51:10 as “e rinnovella dentro di me uno spirito diritto”—matching, virtually word for word, the KJV’s “and renew a right spirit within me.” For those playing along at home, in the Hebrew the adjective in question is nachon (נָכוֹן), which means right, correct, or just. The major English translations of the Bible opt variously for “steadfast,” “loyal,” or “right,” and—more rarely—“resolute” or “faithful.” Eletto, as the cognate suggests, is Italian for “elect” or “elected,” in this case the denoting the Elect, those chosen by God’s secret providence as the recipients of his grace (and thus his salvation). It is impossible to say why Civinini and Zangarini chose eletto rather than diritto, but the choice of a term so crucial to (reformed) Protestant theology seems significant.

All well and good, my patient reader may be (reasonably) wondering, but why should it matter what adjective the librettists chose for a single line in three hours plus of opera? In the grand scheme of things, it surely does not, not even for the vast majority of dedicated operagoers. But for that tiny contingent whose passion for opera is matched by a love of theology, Minnie’s interpretation of Psalm 51 strikes a false note. If we are in the key of reformed Protestantism suggested by the word eletto, it is emphatically not the case that “there is no sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.” To the contrary, since at least the seventeenth century one of the five points of orthodox Calvinism has been the doctrine of “limited atonement” (the “L” in the mnemonic “TULIP”). Limited atonement holds that the salvific power of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross extends onlyto the elect—that is, to those God has determined from eternity to save. To quote the Synod of Dort (1618–19), at which the five points were adumbrated:

it was the will of God that Christ by the blood  of  the cross, whereby He confirmed the new  covenant, should  effectually  redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and  language,  all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father (Second Head, Paragraph 8, italics mine).

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Charles Hodge

Of course, there are many sorts of Protestantism and many sorts of Protestants. Minnie may come from a non-Calvinist branch of the Christian tradition (despite her use of the word eletto), or from one of the Calvinist denominations that have moderated their doctrinal asperity over the years. Nor should we mistake Minnie herself for a theologian: as she herself protests to Johnson, “Don’t expect too much! I’ve got only thirty dollars’ worth of education…” (“Non vi aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli di educazione…” 29). Though a voracious reader, she is largely self-taught; most of faithful, even those far better educated than she, are prone to stumble over doctrine, especially such knotty questions as predestination of soteriology. Indeed, Minnie’s distinguished contemporary, the Reverend Charles Hodge, principal of Princeton Theological Seminary—whose education cost considerably more than thirty dollars—broke with Calvinist orthodoxy to affirm “that God intended to save the majority of humanity” (Gutjahr 40).

So Minnie’s gloss may be something or it may be nothing; hardly much of a reason to care. Such speculations about what happens offstage and before the overture are hardly necessary for appreciating La fanciulla del West—nor do they even approach the importance (or scholarly prominence) of the number of Lady Macbeth’s children or the age of Prince Hamlet. But they spring from the same impulse: to accord fictional characters the status of persons, who do not pop in and out of existence each time they leave the stage.

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Guelfo Civinini

Anecdotes are a form of currency in the world of opera. Here is one. A student of Maria Callas’s, so the story goes, missed the high note in an aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore. When corrected, the student claimed the passage was “a cry of despair.” The legendary soprano replied, “It’s not a cry of despair, it’s a B-flat.” It is not for me to challenge the greatest opera singer of the twentieth (or indeed any other) century; certainly, the storyline cannot be an excuse for poor performance. But, properly rendered as a B-flat, the note can and should be a cry of despair—as Callas, unique among opera singers for her dramatic talents, knew full well. Minnie is not just a collection of Italian phrases set to a sequence of notes; she is a character, and perhaps we learn something from exploring beyond what Puccini, Civinini, and Zangarini put on the stage. Julian Budden points out that by placing the Bible lesson before any of the dramatic action, Fanciulla takes away any ulterior motive for Minnie’s teachings: “she enjoins the Christian virtues out of sheer goodness of heart” (312). In her heretically optimistic take on Psalm 51, Minnie’s creators inadvertently fashioned another, hidden token of that warmth of heart, a warmth that suffuses the entire opera.

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