100 years have gone by since The Girl of the Golden West ( La Fanciulla del West) opened for the first time at the MET of New York, and not much has changed about immigration. People still leave behind all they love in the attempt to provide for their family, not matter how harsh living conditions will be in the new country or the risks that they will face to reach it. This is true now and it was true at the time of the Gold Rush.
“They die in the mud like dogs”, says Minnie, Puccini’s heroine, talking about the abnegation of the miners and their dedication to their families. Puccini had set La Fanciulla del Golden West in the Sierras at a time when people were arriving from all over the world to mine the hills of Northern California for gold, and not just to get rich quickly but also to build a new future for themselves and their people.
Minnie’s aria (soprano Deborah Voigt) is so touching that Dick Johnson (Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, making his debut in San Francisco), a bandit who had come to rob her, not only changes his ways renouncing to his bad deeds but falls also in love with her.
For immigrants the story its still the same today as it was at the time of the Golden Rush, and for some aspects maybe even worse. In fact to get to their Eldorado immigrants not longer die just cracking stones in the mud, as it still happens in many African and Brazilian mines. Now they perish also crossing the sandy desert at the border between the US and Mexico, the span of Mediterranean sea stretching from Libya to southern Italy, and the Adriatic basin separating Albania from Puglia, to name just a few of the deadliest migratory routes in the world.
Immigration, which ends up being always an engine of growth and transformation for the host country, nowadays has assumed mostly a bad connotation. Immigrants have become once again international pariah. In Italy, in the US, and wherever there’s a border, people moving from regions of great poverty to regions of wealth and abundance face exceptional challenges, xenophobic policies and great public aversion. Immigrants not banks and/or offshoring are deemed to be the cause of the persistent instability affecting the labor market in western countries. According to some pundits (and the demagogues who are constantly stirring the ethnic melting pot for political gain), unemployment is caused by scores of poor accepting the most menial jobs offered by rich countries, jobs mind you that in those countries nobody wants to do. Downsizing, outsourcing, offshoring and consolidating don’t register even a peep on the scale of public passionate indignation.
But that is besides the point. The point of this post is that immigrants, their vicissitudes and adventures provide always a great deal of material for works of art of epic proportions, as it happens in the case (lupus in fabula), of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, an opera currently–skillfully–staged by the San Francisco Opera. In calendar until July 2nd, thanks a collaboration between Il Teatro Massimo of Palermo and SF’’s Opera, la Fanciulla under the inspirational and energetic conduction of Maestro Nicola Luisotti, and the artistic direction of the Massimo’s Lorenzo Mariani, is an elegy to the struggle of the miners who came to California during the Gold Rush, and at the same time an ode to the redeeming power of love. The love that a self reliant woman had bestowed for years on an encampment of gold scavengers and which now is being stolen by a passionate bandit.
What to say? Minnie won’t be the last good girl falling for a bad man, however in Puccini’s opera Minnie’s love is a cathartic event. It justify the law and its exception. It substatntiates people’s right to have a second opportunity in life, its the transformational food through which evil, rancor and revenge transmute into understanding, generates compassion and entices empathy. In this sense it is love which opens the door of the American dream to people of all walks, to homesick farmers coming from Scotland in search of better fortune, and to bandits of Latin origins looking for a chance to redeem themselves. What a solace it must have been to arrive to California for Italians who left Italy in scores after the unification, escaping unemployment, famine, and political persecution in search of a land where to start anew. With La Fanciulla del Golden West Puccini not only rewrote musical rules, and gave America an indigenous opera culture, but he also re-framed the discourse on immigration. He pushed it out of dichotomous contradiction of locals versus foreigners moving it into a new dimension where different cultures, traditions, and beliefs can cooperate to create a new–better–understanding of what it means to construct a modern, and more just society. Bravo Puccini. Bravo SF Opera!
And here’s a photo to recap the presentation of La Fanciulla at the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco: