Soprano inspired by Puccini’s Western hero

This Sept. 28, 2018 photo released by the Metropolitan Opera shows soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as the saloon keeper heroine Minnie in a scene from Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera will be broadcast to movie theaters live in HD on Oct. 27. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Mimi dies of tuberculosis. Tosca leaps off a castle roof. Butterfly kills herself. But Minnie?

Unlike so many of Puccini’s operatic women, the saloon-keeper heroine of “La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)” survives the final curtain, though she must leave behind her gold-miner friends to start a new life in exile with her true love.

It’s a bittersweet ending to an opera that soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek said is “really about redemption and forgiveness. People often can’t see past the cowboy thing and the little jokes, but it’s very deep and very positive.”

Westbroek portrays Minnie in the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival, which will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide on Saturday.

The Dutch soprano pointed to the scene in Act One when Minnie reads the miners a Bible lesson based on Psalm 51, in which David pleads for forgiveness after he has committed adultery.

“She says to all these rough boys, ‘You know that in every one of us there is this supreme love in our hearts and that’s all that matters,'” Westbroek said. Later, when she cheats at poker to save the life of Dick Johnson, the bandit she loves, “she gives up her ideals, but I think she forgives herself.”

Similarly, she forgives Johnson for having lied to her about his true identity. And in the final scene, the miners give up their plans to hang Johnson after she pleads for his life.

“She forgives everybody and they forgive her,” she said.

No surprise that it’s one of Westbroek’s favorite roles, and she said that musically it’s unique among Puccini’s operas.

“There’s nothing like it. The score is so brilliant, it’s like entering a whole world,” she said. “It feels very modern and very experimental and sort of impressionistic with its coloring and the amazing orchestration.”

The role of Minnie is also famously difficult for sopranos — especially the frequent leaps that she must make up to and around high C.

“Minnie is a nature girl, she’s always outside,” Westbroek said, “and apparently Puccini wanted to emphasize this energy she has, how her vocal line just explodes into those high notes.”

POKER, GUNS AND HORSES

Minnie plays a game of poker to save Dick Johnson’s life, fires guns at several points and makes a couple of entrances riding a horse. Has Westbroek’s identification with the role led her to try any of these pursuits?

“I don’t know anything about poker,” she said. “They explained it to me, the whole thing. I love it in the opera, but card playing? It’s not for me. Shooting a gun? Also not one of my goals in life.”

But horseback riding? “Yes, it made me want to try it,” she said. “As I child I always wanted to, but it was nothing we did in our family. Then I thought I was too old until I met someone else who started at a late age and they said, ‘Just take it easy.’ I’m a total beginner, but I’m loving it.”

NAME THAT TUNE?

Puccini occasionally borrowed musical phrases from other sources when he was seeking authentic local color for his operas. In “Fanciulla” he used two excerpts from a collection of Zuni melodies for miner Jake Wallace’s song about homesickness early in the opera.

And Puccini himself has served as inspiration for later composers. His estate sued Andrew Lloyd Webber claiming copyright infringement over a phrase in “The Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera.” The suit, which cited similarities to a line sung by Dick Johnson near the end of Act One of “Fanciulla,” was settled out of court.

WHERE TO SEE IT

“Fanciulla,” which also stars German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in his return to the Met after more than four years’ absence, will be shown on Saturday. 27. A list of theaters can be found at the Met’s website: http://www.metopera.org/hd. In the United States it will be repeated on Oct. 31, with encore showings in Canada on Nov. 17, 19, 21 and 25.

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