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Photo by Jeremy Harmon
Dick Johnson (Tonio di Paolo) tries to woo Minnie Johnson (Lori Phillips)

Giacomo Puccini had a lifelong love for the exotic that often manifested itself in his operas.

Plots were sometimes played out in remote time periods (medieval Europe in "Il Tabarro" and "Gianni Schicchi") and were sometimes set in distant locales (Louisiana in Act IV of "Manon Lescaut," his first operatic success; Japan in "Madama Butterfly"; and China for his last work, the unfinished "Turandot").

Puccini's creative energy was obviously fueled by taking his audiences beyond mere operatic conventions.

Of all of his operas, however, "La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)" is perhaps the most strikingly unique. Here, the composer returns to America but this time to California during the Gold Rush of 1849-50.

Utah Opera will present Puccini's seldom-played 1910 opera in a co-production with Austin Lyric Opera and Arizona Opera for a five-performance run that opens Saturday in the Capitol Theatre and closes March 21.

For a European living at the turn of the past century, America must have held a fascination that would have triggered the imagination of a creative mind. Today, Puccini's opera probably doesn't seem exotic; only a bit far-fetched, with a story that takes place in the rough-and-tumble world of a California mining camp. "Fanciulla" has been derisively called the first spaghetti western.

Whatever one might think of it, however, the opera shows Puccini in his prime as a composer and a true master of the theater.

The plot is typical for an Italian opera. The fate of the opera's three main characters — Minnie, Jack Rance and Dick Johnson — is cruelly thrown together. Rance, the sheriff of the mining camp, wants Minnie for his wife. Minnie, who runs the town's only saloon, rejects him and instead falls in love with Johnson, a stranger to the town, whom Minnie knew years before. But Johnson turns out to be a bandit.

When Rance and his men finally capture him, they prepare to hang him for his crimes. Minnie intercedes on Johnson's behalf, telling the crowd that he has redeemed himself through his love for her. And she emphatically reminds everyone present about how much she has helped them in the past by teaching them to read and better themselves. In the end, the men let Johnson live, and he and Minnie go off to start a new life together.

"Fanciulla" was an extraordinary success when it premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910 with Enrico Caruso as Johnson and Arturo Toscanini conducting. However, during the intervening years, the work has become one of Puccini's least performed operas, with only occasional revivals at the major opera houses in the United States and Europe.

Anton Coppola, who returns to Salt Lake City to conduct Utah Opera's production, said there are several reasons why "Fanciulla" never caught on with audiences. "For one thing, it finishes softly and sweetly. It has a sweet idyllic ending, and the operagoing public doesn't readily accept that."

Soprano Lori Phillips, who debuts as Minnie, said that the opera is about redemption. "It's a shock the way the opera ends. Dick may have been a bandit, but in the month he spent at Minnie's house recovering from his wounds (after being shot by one of Rance's men), he turns his life around.

"The question we have to ask ourselves is, can we recover? And Minnie believes through the grace of God everyone can have redemption, but we have to dig at it."

"Fanciulla" places tremendous demands on the voices of the three leads. "Leontyne Price lost her voice after singing Minnie at the Met," said baritone Guido LeBron. "She had to take a year off to recover."

LeBron will be making his debut as Rance in this production. He said that taking on a new role can be intimidating. "You come to a new town with a new score to work with a new stage director and new conductor, and it can make you very nervous, because everything is so unpredictable." But he added that he hasn't felt that way since coming to Salt Lake City. "The company has made me feel welcome."

LeBron said that both Coppola and Stephanie Sundine, the production's stage director, inspire confidence in the singers. "You know you're in good hands, because both know the opera so well."

Coppola in particular receives praise from LeBron. "He, and a few others like (Julius) Rudel and a couple of conductors in Europe, are the last generation of great conductors who have had direct contact with the original, either by knowing the composer or through someone who knew the composer. There is a direct line from Puccini through (Tullio) Serafin and Toscanini to these conductors."

Besides Coppola, only tenor Tonio di Paolo, who sings the role of Johnson, and Sundine have had any experience with "Fanciulla." Before turning her energy to directing, Sundine was a professional singer for 25 years, and Minnie was one of her many roles. Now she has the opportunity of being involved with the opera again but from the other side of the footlights. "We have a strong and greatly gifted cast. All three singers are exceptional, and Minnie is a great role for Lori. I'm thrilled that she's doing it."

Phillips said that this will be a realistic production. "It has a down-to-earth quality, and that's good." Sundine added that the opera calls for a large cast, which will be pared down for the Capitol Theatre. "The cast has been reduced to under 30," said Sundine. She also said that the production uses a racked stage, which can be problematic. "It's a tricky set to work with. It's an odd set that's racked in two different directions. Tonio has done it on this set before, and he told me that things have a tendency to fall off."

There are two American Indian roles in "Fanciulla," Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle. And thanks to Coppola, this production can boast a first, since both characters will be using a native dialect instead of Italian. "They will be speaking in the Maidu dialect," Coppola said. "It was the language that the Indians in the Sacramento area (of California) spoke 150 years ago."

Coppola said that in the play by David Belasco, on which Puccini's librettists based the opera, the two speak pidgin English. "Puccini had this translated into a sort of pig Italian, and that has always bothered me. They are a couple, and they wouldn't speak to each other that way. It sounds stilted and wrong."

It took quite a bit of research, but Coppola succeeded in finding someone who knew the dialect and could translate it. "I called up my famous nephew (film director Francis Ford Coppola). He has a librarian who does nothing but research. She tracked down a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who knows Indian languages. So I called her up, but she told me that it really is her mentor who is the expert. He's retired now and lives in Santa Cruz. So I contacted him and sent him the English (text) and he sent back the Indian translation."

After dealing with American Indians speaking broken Italian, American operagoers might have one more hurdle before wholeheartedly embracing "Fanciulla." "I think for Americans it's hard to accept cowboys spouting Italian," said Coppola. But not even the maestro has found a solution to that.

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