Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West, premièred in New York, 1910, represents what we might call a photographic turn in the later Puccini. For one, its mise-en-scène was given textual status equivalent to that of libreto and music. The opera's first costumes and sets were crafted for the Metropolitan Opera House from stills of the source play, The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco. What is more, the circulation of photographs and eventually a staging livret ensured that La fanciulla looked the same in every iteration. In this model, authorship and performance become acts of remediation between layers of machine-generated souvenirs. Both The Girl and La fanciulla bear the marks of their mediated nature: The Girl suggests a fragile third dimension through the use of panoramas and scrims; during its famous Act I sunset La fanciulla moves from a realist sound-world towards a fantasy one, the latter marked by disembodied humming from a tenor chorus and even a new instrument, the fonica, designed by Puccini to be sounded by electricity. This essay suggests that the purported resistance of Puccinian opera to revisionist staging has its roots in critiques of realism's ‘statistical’ universe, and the perceptual modes held to be available to mass-consumed art.
Ellen Lockhart is a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University. Publications include an article on pantomime and musical gesture in Eighteenth-Century Music and another, in press at Cambridge Opera Journal, on the reception of Rousseau's melodrama Pygmalion on the Italian peninsula. She is preparing a critical edition of La fanciulla del West for Ricordi.