Puccini’s cowboy opera, La Fanciulla del West, is returning to the Met this season after an absence of 17 years. 2010 is the 100th anniversary of the opera’s world premiere at the Met. Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso sang the leads under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. Puccini supervised the production which was directed by David Belasco on whose play the libretto was based. Ticket prices were doubled to $10 for the prima, which was sold out. It was a scalper’s dream.
Though the opera was very favorably received and is regularly performed around the world it has never achieved the popularity of Puccini’s other mature works. Surprisingly, though the part of Dick Johnson was written for him, Caruso never recorded either of the opera’s two tenor arias. The first of these “Or son sei mesi” presents an especially difficult challenge for the tenor. The part calls for a spinto voice heavier than the tenor roles Puccini had previously written. The aria is full of tenorial fireworks, especially the outburst of high B-flats near its finish. Only a really fine tenor can bring it off. But the aria also requires a lyricism that spinto tenors can rarely summon. The opera’s other tenor aria (“Ch’ella mi creda”) is much better known and is easier on the tenor.
The opera is Puccini pretending to be Debussy and it’s a great impersonation. The interweaving of orchestra and voices is unlike anything else Puccini ever did. If you can put Boheme and Butterfly aside when listening to it, you’ll love it. The scene in the second act where Minnie plays poker (she cheats) with the wicked sheriff for Johnson’s life, silly as it seems on paper, sweeps the audience away when a great soprano pulls out all the stops. The opera also the first spaghetti western and the first horse opera.
The words to “Or son sei mesi” are below in both Italian and English.
Una parola sola !
Non mi difenderò: sono un dannato!
Lo so, lo so ! Ma non vi avrei rubato !
Sono Ramerrez : nacqui vagabondo :
era ladro il mio nome
da quando venni al mondo
Ma fino a che fu vivo
mio padre, io non sapevo.
Or son sei mesi
che mio padre mori… E tutto appresi!
Sola ricchezza mia, mio solo pane
per la madre e i fratelli, alla dimane,
l’eredità paterna : una masnada
di banditi da strada ! L’accettai.
Era quello il destino mio !
Ma un giorno
v’ho incontrata… Ho sognato
d’andarmene con voi tanto lontano,
per redimermi tutto in una vita
di lavoro e d’amore… E il labbro mio
mormorò una ardente preghiera : Oh Dio!
ch’ella non sappia mai la mia vergogna !
Il sogno è stato vano !
Ora ho finito…
Let me just say one word.
But not in self-defence:
I am accursed. I know ! I know ?
But I would not have robbed you !
I am Ramerrez. vagabond by birth:
From the day I was born I was reared on stolen money.
But while my father was living I didn’t know it.
My father died just six months ago,
And then I knew !
The only heritage for my mother,
For my brothers, to face the future,
The only thing he left us,
Was a gang of road-agents and robbers !
I took the road. . . .
It was Fate, and had to be !
But then one day I saw you
From that moment 1 longed to take you with me far, far away,
And to start a fresh life of honest work.
Honest work and love
And all the while in my heart
I was uttering a prayer :
God, grant that she may never know what I am !
My prayer has not been answered!
Now I’ve finished
Richard Tucker’s performance, recorded live, is perhaps the best combination of power and expression. His version is likely as close to Caruso’s as we’ll get. Tucker only sang eight performances of this part at the Met. This recording was made in 1962. Tucker – Or son sei mesi
Mario Del Monaco was beyond spinto; he was a full fledged dramatic tenor. His 1954 performance, also recorded live, has everything you’d want for this aria. Del Monaco – Or son sei mesi
Franco Corelli had both the looks and voice for the part. The recording was made in a studio in 1955. Corelli – Or son sei mesi
Placido Domingo recorded this aria several times. This studio recording was made in 1972 when he was in the full flower of vocal youth. Domingo – Or son sei mesi
And now for something completely different. Joseph Schmidt was not a spinto tenor and would not have sung the role onstage; but in front of a microphone he transforms the aria. He sings it (the recitative is omitted) much slower than the others presented above. He uses his beautiful voice and wonderful line to give the song a magical lyricism that makes you forget he’s singing in German. His interpretation gives the piece a dream-like character that no one else achieves. Of course he has the brilliant acuti needed at the end. He was a unique artist who brought something special to everything he sang. Schmidt – Or son sei mesi
Many other tenors have recorded this aria. You may find some very much to your taste, but I think these five do as much as is possible with this piece. Tucker, Del Monaco, and Corelli owned this role during the middle of the last century.