Gun-totin’ barmaid Minnie fights for true love in Puccini’s “spaghetti western” opera, making her mark on a gold-rush California town with a rifle, virtue and a few cards up her sleeve. After twice defending her lover Dick Johnson, the infamous bandit Ramírez, from the lawful intentions of the sheriff, Minnie wins the sympathy of the gold miners and leaves town to begin a new life with Dick—riding off into the sunset.
Name that Tune
Many listeners cite similarities between the song “Quello che tacete” sung by the character Dick Johnson and a section of “The Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera. While some listeners have claimed that this similarity is evidence of musical plagiarism on the part of Webber, it is very possible that it is yet another instance in the long-standing compositional practice of “borrowing.” Puccini himself borrowed from a collection of Zuni melodies recorded by ethnomusicologist Carlos Troyer. Although he intended to draw on these recordings while composing music for the native American character Wowkle, Puccini eventually made use of this source for the character Jake Wallace instead.
Based on the play by American author David Belasco, La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) premiered on December 10, 1910 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City and has since seen 104 performances with the company. This occasion marked the first ever world premiere to be performed at The Met, which was founded 30 years earlier in 1880, and was received with great excitement. The opera went on to be performed throughout Europe and was met with a highly successful German premier in March of 1913. While Puccini’s operas have been performed with great regularity in Omaha—Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Tosca account for three of the five most frequently performed operas in the city—2016 will mark the first time that La fanciulla del West has graced the Opera Omaha stage.
Leave it to the Critics
Although Puccini’s spaghetti western was well received during its U.S. premier in New York, it never reached the same extent of popularity in Europe, with an exception made for Germany. In fact, the opera’s initial popularity dwindled over time, and overall audience opinions of the music and plot were mixed, to say the least. Despite this, Puccini himself believed La fanciulla del West to be one of his greatest works and many academics agree, calling the work a magnum opus for its fine musical craftsmanship.
The Brightest Star
Although La fanciulla del West was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera, and the leading roles of Minnie and Dick Johnson were originally created for Met stars Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso, Puccini’s preferred performance of Minnie was given by Gilda dalla Rizza at the Opera de Monte-Carlo in 1921. Indeed, he is said to have made the following remark regarding this performance: “At last I have seen my true Fanciulla.” This 1921 production must have been spectacular, since coming from the composer himself, this was high praise indeed!