Sunday, January 9, 2011

Minnie the Badass, and Other Operatic Thoughts

Went to see the Met HD broad cast of La Fanciulla del West yesterday, which was great fun.  More photos here.  This opera was new to me and I found it moving.  The romance was nice enough but what I found particularly moving was the character of Minnie as embodied by the delightful Deborah Voigt, who filled the role with spunk and verve and tenderness.  Also her interaction with the workers touched me.  Here are some of my thoughts about the experience.

  • We arrived early with a friend and read through the synopsis.  I considered the plot and leaned over to my cielo and our friend who came with us and said:  "So let's get this straight.  The main character is a woman, who owns her own apparently successful business, rides horses, knows how to use guns, teaches the Bible, cheats at  cards, gets involved in a interracial relationship, and at the end of it all saves the day by rescuing a man from death.  How much are we going to love this opera???!!!"  Minnie is a badass!  And as the opera progressed I enjoyed learning more about her character -- that she treats the workers with dignity (while having good boundaries!), that she loves to read (perhaps is mostly self-educated?), that she explores the wildnerness on her own, that she enjoys living alone in her cabin, that she has a strong moral center of her own, and that she doesn't take any crap, from anybody.  I even had the sense that her desire to find love was not so much because somehow she felt incomplete without a man, but because her own parents were so happy, and she wanted to experience that for herself.  We most often don't get heroines like this, in opera or movies or anywhere, so I enjoyed this.  And Voigt was most convincing in her portrayal of all these aspects of Minnie.
  • So it was jarring, then, when she is alone with Johnson/Ramerrez near the end of the 1st act, suddenly she says she is little, "una povera fanciulla, oscura e buona a nulla," a poor girl, obscure and good for nothing.  Um, what?  See above paragraph.  She says to him, "You say such beautiful things to me, beyond my understanding."  Again, what?  She has, just minutes before, read from the Bible and elucidated a theological stance based on her interpretation of the text.  (More on that in a minute).  She knows what hyssop is, for goodness sakes.  And suddenly she is saying Johnson shouldn't expect much, because she only has a 30-dollar education (whatever that means in 1850, especially for a woman).  Why Minnie should have this sudden strain of insecurity and self-deprecation was beyond me; it seemed so counter to everything that had come before...and in reflecting on the opera later, it was counter to everything that came after.  I believe in a kind of love at first sight (hi, cielo!) but I was not clear what there was in particular about Johnson that would overwhelm Minnie to the point of actually forgetting what a strong, intelligent woman she was.  Puccini, what were you thinking?
  •  So, theology.  Right, I'm a theologian so I can't help thinking about these things.  But in this case it seemed fairly obvious to me that Puccini set up a clear theological debate in the first act.  Early on, one of the miners is caught cheating at poker.  The other workers want to kill him, but the sheriff, Jack Rance, however, devises a different punishment.  He takes the two of spades and pins it to the guy's vest, telling the other guys that if he ever removes it, they are to hang him.  It's the Wild West version of the Scarlet "A:"  He's marked for life.  No redemption for him.  Now, when Minnie teaches her Bible lesson, she reads from Psalm 51.  Puccini clearly did not have his Bible at hand because Minnie says she is reading from verse 2, when actually she is reading from verse 7 (the one about hyssop), and later, verse 10.  At any rate, her interpretation of these verses is "Cio vuol dire, ragazzi, che non ve, al mondo, peccatore, cui non sapra una via de redenzione," there is no sinner for whom there is no redemption.  So then the question in the opera becomes, is there redemption for Johnson/Ramerrez for being a thief?  He is trying to find his way to redemption, but will he be allowed to?  Rance thinks not.  Minnie struggles when confronted with the real implications of her theological claim, but decides yes, in part, I think, because of her realization in Act 2 that "we are all the same, all theives and gamblers," including herself for running a saloon and making money off whiskey and gambling.  And then in Act 3 she goes about convincing the miners who are ready to hang Ramerrez, in what to me was a very powerful climax of the opera in the third act, that indeed, for every sinner there is redemption, that, as she taught them, each of them have the love in their hearts it takes to forgive.  Everyone but the sheriff forgives; he is left looking on, pistol dangling from his hand, lost.  
  • Redemption?  Yes.  That's the opera's answer anyway.  It may seem naive, especially in the wake of last week's bad news in Colorado and yesterday's political violence in Arizona.  Minnie struggles in the 2nd Act, as I mentioned; it's not an easy resolution for her.  The insight that "we are all the same" -- the sheriff, the povera fanciulla, and the thief -- seems to point to some of the complexities of the problem of assigning blame -- who is really innocent?  Who is really free from blame?  When injustice is endemic and systemic and institutionalized (slightly beyond the scope of the opera, but think about the fact that the sheriff is also a gambler), whose hands are clean?  We are all in need of the hyssop.
  • On a different note:  When the curtain went up on Act 1 and the workers started wandering in, mentioning how they missed home, I began thinking about the immigrant workers I know, some of whom are members of my church.  Are they so very different from the men depicted here, who have left home and traveled a great distance to a strange land to try to make money for their families?  It is the same desire, why do we now treat our immigrant brothers and sisters so inhumanely?  When the troubadour comes in and they all begin to sing of the ways they miss home, and then "Jim" breaks down and weeps on the bar, saying he can't take it anymore and wants to go home, well, it broke my heart and I cried.  Not too long ago someone wept like that, broken, on my shoulder, and the tenderness of this chorus, well, Puccini got it just right.  The instructions in the score say the scene is to be "agonized" and it certainly was.
  • One last thing.  The opera is a product of its time, as everything is.  So I suppose it should not have such a shock when Act 2 opened with Hollywood-stereotype Native Americans actually grunting at each other.  The score is clear, they're supposed to grunt and such.  Puccini's opera here (and I am certain the play that it's based on) is racist.  But this production added the insult of Billy being drunk in the bed -- that's not in the score instructions, so the director made things worse -- so we have the stereotype of the drunk male Indian and the young Indian maiden with the "papoose" on her back.  What is the responsibility of opera directors/designers to NOT perpetuate racist (etc) stereotypes to the extent they're able?  This has got to be harder in some operas than others, but it would have changed the plot/meaning of this particular one Not One Bit to instruct the singers to ignore the grunting and turn those bits into to something more conversational, and to not put Billy in the bed with a whiskey bottle.  I mean, come on.  Let these characters have some dignity.
So there you go!  Really, it was a wonderful experience, including Sandra Radvanovsky's interview with the horses backstage during the first intermission, and her banter with Deborah Voigt over the mass of props during the 2nd intermission, over which was better, a rifle or a spear a la Brunnhilda.  Yet another reason to love the HD shows!

Minnie cheats at poker:

Deborah Voigt talks about the role here.

Anik will appreciate that I got my score/libretto help from IU Opera Scores. Here's Fanciulla.