La fanciulla del West

Opera in three acts (1910)

music by

Giacomo Puccini

text by

Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after David Belasco

California, at the heyday of the Gold Rush: the place of people’s dreams turns out to be an inexorable wasteland, governed by the law of the jungle. Minnie’s bar is the only place where people live in peaceful coexistence. It is revered by gold seekers and fiercely presided over by the gruff Sheriff Rance. But when Minnie falls in love with a stranger who turns out to be the notorious bandit Johnson, the fragile community is turned upside down.

Giacomo Puccini’s works, especially his arias from »La Bohème«, »Tosca« and »Madama Butterfly«, are among the most played operas. »La Fanciulla del West«, by contrast, which was premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910, stands so much in the shadow of his other operas that this production is the very first one at Unter den Linden. At first glance, Puccini’s Wild West opera, in which the outcasts of society meet in search of wealth and a stroke of luck, has fewer moments of poetry and melody than most of his operas. On the other hand, he succeeded in creating a portrait of a community full of hardship and shattered dreams. The composer was rightly proud of his score’s refined timbres. Anton von Webern, who was not renowned for his affinity with Italian opera, commented appreciatively: »The score has an entirely original sound. Magnificent. Every beat is surprising. Very special sounds.«




A remote goldmining camp in California during the Gold Rush: the goldminers spend their evenings drinking and playing cards at the Polka Saloon. A nostalgic song performed by the wandering minstrel Jake Wallace puts everyone in a melancholic mood, especially Larkens, who is particularly homesick. The men collect money to enable him to return home. The Wells Fargo agent Ashby reports to Sheriff Jack Rance that there are Mexican bandits in the area with their notorious leader Ramerrez, whom he wants to put a stop to once and for all. In the meantime, a fight ensues: Sid is caught cheating; Sonora gets in a fight with the sheriff when he announces that he is willing to marry the owner of the Polka, Minnie, beloved by all, the only woman at the camp. The arrival of the resolute Minnie puts an end to the fight.

Minnie interrupts the drunkenness for a moment and gives the men a bible hour. A messenger arrives and brings Ashby the news that a prostitute named Nina Micheltorena wanted to reveal Ramerrez’s whereabouts. Now left alone with Minnie, Rance announces his intention to marry her. Minnie declines, mentioning the fact that Rance has a wife still alive and well in New Orleans: in addition, she was waiting for a true love like the one she saw between her parents at home.

The waiter Nick announces the arrival of a stranger who introduces himself to the dismissive sheriff as Johnson from Sacramento. Minnie and the new guest recognize one another immediately: they had seen one another a while ago on the way to Monterey and exchanged a few words there. Johnson ultimately asks Minnie to dance.

In the meantime, Ashby has arrested José Castro, a bandit loitering outside the saloon, and takes him to questioning with Rance. Castro says he knows where Ramerrez is hiding and wants to lead the men there. In an unobserved moment, Castro whispers to Johnson that everything is ready for an attack and that the gang is only waiting for Johnson’s start signal. Ashby, Rance, and the men set off with Castro.

Minnie is left alone with Johnson and shows him the gold gained from the men’s hard labor, which she keeps for them in safety. Johnson is impressed by her intrepidity. He promises to visit her later that evening at her cabin on the mountain. Minnie is left behind, deeply moved.

Minnie hectically prepares for Johnson’s visit. He finally appears and carefully listens to her descriptions of her simple life on the mountain and in the camp. After Minnie sends off her servant Wowkle, she and Johnson are quickly lying passionately in one another’s arms. Shots from a distance frighten Johnson, but in light of a snowstorm that makes a descent impossible, Minnie convinces him to spend the night with her.

Rance, Ashby, Nick and Sonora arrive, forcing Johnson to hide. They warn Minnie, for Nina Micheltorena has revealed Johnson’s true identity: he is Ramerrez. Minnie convinces the men that she can take care of herself. After they have left, Johnson tries to explain by saying he was reluctantly forced to take over leadership of the bandit gang from his father. Minnie makes her disgust clear to him and throws him out. A shot falls, Johnson collapses wounded in front of the door. Minnie hides him in the attic. Rance returns and searches the cabin for Johnson in a jealous rage. A drop of blood from the attic betrays the presence of the bandit. To save him, Minnie proposes a round of poker, with Johnson and herself as the prize. The passionate poker player Rance agrees. When she is about to lose, she saves herself by cheating. Rance accepts his loss and Johnson now belongs to her.

A few days later, Ashby and the gold miners are on the prowl to face Johnson when he tries to flee. Rance has kept his promise and has revealed nothing. He and Nick wonder what draws Minnie to Johnson. Calls from a distance announce that Johnson has been discovered. A wild chase ensues. Finally, the men corner Johnson. Ashby hands him over to the sheriff for punishment. The goldminers want to see him hang, and Nick goes off to get Minnie. During all of this, Johnson only requests that Minnie never be informed of the true nature of his death.

At the very last moment, Minnie blocks the execution. She appeals to the men’s empathy and reminds them of everything she has done for them. Gradually, she convinces the goldminers and they release Johnson. Minnie and Johnson leave California. The goldminers remain behind, broken men.

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