The Girl of the West / La fanciulla del West

Can opera – a centuries-old Italian art form be an effective medium for a Western – that quintessentially American and (relatively) new genre? Puccini thought so.

Opera Carolina’s new production of The Girl of the West (La fanciulla del West) is our first international collaboration with the Teatro di Giglio in Puccini’s hometown of Lucca, Italy, the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and the New York City Opera.

New production design by acclaimed Italian director Ivan Stefanutti. Sets and digital projections built by Opera Carolina. New costumes by Atelier Nicolao, Venice, Italy.


Can opera, an Italian art form dating back to the late 1500s, be an effective medium for a Western – that quintessentially American and (relatively) new genre? In the hands of Puccini, it can. In the vein of Gunsmoke, High Noon and literary bodice rippers with Fabio on the cover, comes The Girl of the West (La fanciulla del West) a hard-drinkin’, poker-playin’, bona fide Western … with an Italian operatic soundtrack. And, of course, the hero (or in this case, the heroine) rides off into the sunset.

Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini Libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini Based on the play The Girl of the Golden West by the American author David Belasco. Time: 1850. The California Gold Rush Place: A mining camp at the foot of the Cloudy Mountains in the Sierra Nevadas.


The Action takes place at the foothills of Sierras during the 1840’s California Gold Rush.

ACT I Inside the Polka Saloon – just after dark. A group of miners enter the “Polka” saloon after days of mining for gold. The camp minstrel, Jake Wallace, sings a sentimental tune about home. This prompts one of the miners, Jim Larkens, to beg his friends to help him get home. The miners collect enough money for his fare home. A group playing cards discovers that Sid is cheating and about to hang him when the Sheriff, Jack Rance, stops the fight. He pins a card on Sid’s jacket as a sign of a cheater. Ashby, a Wells Fargo agent enters and announces that he and his posse are close to capturing the bandit Ramerrez and his gang. He tells Rance that he is meeting Ramerrez’s jilted lover, Nina Micheltoreňa later. “Hell hath no fury, and she’s ready to give him up.”

Rance toasts Minnie, the Girl of the West who he wants to be his wife. A jealous Sonora tells him Minnie is just playing around with him, and the two men begin to fight. Just then, a shot rings out and Minnie stands next to the bar with a rifle in her hands. After calming things down, she gives the miners their weekly reading lesson from the Bible. After the lesson, Rance tells Minnie he wants her to be his and that he’ll take care of her. Minnie puts him off telling him she wants what her parents had – true love. A stranger enters the Polka. He introduces himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento. He is in fact, the outlaw Ramerrez, and has come to the Polka to steal the miner’s gold. He and Minnie had met months ago on the road from Monterrey, and fell into an unspoken love for each other. At this chance meeting, he invites Minnie to dance while Rance watches them, jealously.

Ashby and his men burst in with Jose Castro, a member of Ramerrez’s gang. Unkown to Ashby, Castro’s capture is part of the plan to rob the Polka. When Castro sees his disguised leader in the saloon, he feigns betrayal to Ramerrez and agrees to lead Rance in a search his hideout. Before Castro leaves, he whispers to Ramerrez that somebody will whistle to confirm that the place is clear, and he should confirm with his own signal. The miners join the possee and follow Castro in what turns out to be a wild goose chase. When the signal is given, Ramerrez fails to reply, as his attentions are now only fixed on Minnie. He reassures her that the gold will be safe. Before he leaves the saloon, she invites him to her cabin that night. As the bond between them grows, he tells her she has the face of an angel.


ACT II Minnie’s cabin – late evening. Wowkle, Minnie’s Indian servant and her husband to be Billy Jackrabbit are in the house with their new baby, as Minnie comes home and announces that dinner will be for two tonight. “Johnson” arrives and the two continue their deep conversation from earlier. They kiss and Minnie suggests he can stay till morning. The posse approaches the house and Johnson hides. Rand tells Minnie that Johnson is really the bandit Ramerrez. When the men leave Minnie orders Ramerrez to get out. When she hears a gunshot outside her cabin, she knows he has been shot. Ramerrez staggers in and Minnie helps him by hiding him up in the loft. Rance enters, sure that Ramerrez entered the cabin. Minnie denies he is there, and when Rance is about to give up searching he sees drops of blood fall from the loft. He forces Ramerrez to climb down. Before he can take him to Ashby and the possee, Minnie makes Rance a depserate offer: If she beats him at poker, he will let Ramerrez go free. If Rance wins, she will marry him. Hiding some cards, Minnie cheats and wins. Rance honors the deal and Minnie throws herself on the unconscious Johnson on the floor.


ACT III In the Great Californian Forest at dawn – six weeks later. Ramerrez has been nursed back to health by Minnie. They have agreed he will leave and start a new, honest life, and that she will join him. But, he finds himself once again on the run from Ashby who arrives in triumph. Ramerrez has been captured. Rance and the miners all want him to be hanged. Ramerrez accepts his sentence and only asks the miners not to tell Minnie about his fate. Before they can hang him, Minnie arrives, armed with a pistol. She throws herself in front of Ramerrez to protect him, and convinces the miners that they owe her too much to kill the man she loves. She asks them to free him. One by one the miners yield. Even Rance finally gives in. The miners say farewell to Minnie as she and Ramerrez leave California to start a new life together.

POPera Facts

Puccini took a page out of the great American Western playbook – but set his rough-and-tumble, gun-toting, whiskey-slinging story to an Italian operatic soundtrack. If you liked Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, you’ll like The Girl of the West.

And here’s an interesting twist: This is a feminist Western. Puccini gave this story a heroine – a spirited saloon owner who saves the day and gets to ride off into the sunset with her card-playing cowboy.

John Wayne showed us how the West was won. Puccini demonstrated how the West was sung.

About the Composer

Giacomo Puccini


Giacomo Puccini was born in Tuscany, Italy in 1858 into a family of five generations of church organists, choirmasters and composers. His father died when Giacomo was 5 years old, and he was sent to study with his uncle, who considered him a poor student.

As a teenager, Puccini served as an organist at area churches and played piano at social events. In 1876, the 23-year-old walked 30 kilometers to attend a performance of Verdi’s Aïda. This event changed his life: He decided to make opera his life’s work.

The greatest influence in Puccini’s life was his mother, who petitioned for and received a grant to send her son to the Milan Conservatory. While studying at the Conservatory, Puccini obtained a libretto from Ferdinando Fontana, and entered a competition for a one-act opera in 1882. Although he didn’t win, Le Villi was staged in 1884 and caught the attention of the head of G. Ricordi & Co. music publishers, who commissioned a second opera, Edgar, in 1889.

Edgar failed, in part because Fontana’s libretto was poor. When Puccini began his next opera, Manon Lescaut, he announced he would write his own libretto so that “no fool of a librettist” could spoil it. Five librettists were involved, due mainly to Puccini constantly changing his mind about the structure of the piece. It was almost by accident that the final two, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, came together to complete the opera.

They remained with Puccini for his next three operas and probably his greatest successes: La BohemeTosca and Madama Butterfly.

Puccini based his “Western opera” on the play The Girl of the Golden West by the American author David Belasco. Fanciulla followed Butterfly, which was also based on a Belasco play.

The opera is influenced by Debussy and Strauss, although it’s an original work and certainly can’t be called a copy of either.

The opera had a successful premiere at the Met in 1910. In fact, the Met commissioned it. Puccini himself considered his Western opera one of his greatest works.

His other famed operas include Turandot (1926) – unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death and completed by Franco Alfano, one of his protégés.

Puccini was a lifelong smoker, particularly of cigars, and in 1924 was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery, which left him unable to speak. He died of a heart attack four days later.


Ivan Stefanutti


James Meena


Stefano Nicolao


Michael Baumgarten