Opera Profile: ‘La Fanciulla Del West,’ Puccini’s Most Underrated Masterpiece

By David Salazar

Puccini himself once stated that “La Fanciulla del West” was his finest score. 

The opera, which had its world premiere on Dec. 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera, showed the composer and his fascination for exploring “exotic cultures.” In this case, he heads over to California to explore the Gold Rush era. 

Despite a beloved score, the opera has never quite attained the popularity of many of the composer’s other renowned works. That said, it remains a strong vehicle for the leading soprano and critically acclaimed. 

Short Plot Synopsis

At the bar called “The Polka,” a number of miners huddle for some time together. Sherriff Rance is informed by Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent that he is chasing Ramerrez, a bandit. 

Minnie, who owns the saloon, walks in amidst some chaos and calms the men down. Rance declares his love for Minnie but is rebuffed. A stranger, calling himself Johnson (he’s Ramerrez) arrives and starts to flirt with Minnie. They dance and then Ashby arrives with Castro, one of Ramerrez’s captured gang members. They run off with him to seek out the leader, but Johnson stays to attempt a robbery. He stops and winds up spending time with Minnie. He agrees to see her at her home later that night. 

Minnie and Johnson meet at her cabin and declare their love for one another. He is to stay the night with her but that is interrupted when Rance arrives at her cabin with Ashby, and Sonora to tell Minnie that Johnson is really Ramerrez. After they leave, she confronts Johnson and makes him leave. As he does, he is shot by Rance, who returns to collect his prisoner. But Minnie challenges Rance to a card game and cheats to ultimately win. Rance leaves.

Weeks pass and Johnson is captured by the miners. But before he is executed, Minnie arrives to save him. Together they walk away to start a life together. 

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera doesn’t really have many showpieces or standard arias in the same manner as other Puccini operas, but “Ch’ella mi creda” is undeniably the most famed number in the work. The tenor aria is often performed outside the context of the opera and known for its plaintive melody; famed scholar Julian Budden has even referred to the aria as “Verdian.”

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