Major Operas | La fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century
Puccini visited the Metropolitan Opera in New York during 1907 to see the US premieres of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. While there he saw David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West and his next opera began to take shape.
La fanciulla del West is notable particularly for the vital part the vast orchestra plays in depicting the characters’ emotions. As well as having Wagnerian traits, the opera demonstrates the interest Puccini had in Strauss, and in Salome in particular.
Sheriff Jack Rance stops miners at the Polka Saloon lynching a card cheat. Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent, reports the imminent capture of the bandit Ramerrez. Rance and Sonora quarrel over Minnie, the camp’s only woman. Sonora gives Minnie his gold for safe-keeping. She begins to take a Bible class. Rance declares his love, but Minnie knows he is married. Rance is suspicious of Dick Johnson, a stranger, but Minnie remembers she has seen him before. Ashby brings in Castro, who offers to betray Ramerrez and whispers to Johnson that his gang is waiting: Johnson is Ramerrez. Minnie is entranced by his words. She tells him a robber would have to kill her before stealing the gold and he does nothing when he hears a whistle. She invites him to her cabin.
Minnie evades Johnson’s kiss when he arrives. They talk politely about the cabin and reading. He asks for a kiss and she cannot resist. He declares he loved her at first sight. It is snowing. He offers to leave, but she tells him to stay the night. He hides when Rance and Ashby arrive to tell her Johnson’s true identity. When they have gone she berates him for planning to rob her, but he claims he longs to renounce his life as a bandit. She cannot forgive him stealing her first kiss. As he leaves he is shot, and Minnie hides him in the loft. Assured that Johnson is not there, Rance is about to leave when a drop of blood lands on his hand. She challenges Rance to a game of poker with herself as the prize if Rance wins. If he loses, however, Johnson is hers. She switches the cards and wins.
The men are beside a campfire in a forest clearing. Rance wants revenge. Various miners narrate Johnson’s capture, and he is brought in to be lynched. He asks them never to tell Minnie how he died, but to say he went far away. At the last moment she enters and threatens to kill Johnson and herself. She reminds the miners of what she has done for them and Sonora persuades them to release Johnson. Minnie and Johnson ride off to a new future.
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