Great Moments In Opera, Act One Of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla Del West”



The opera “La Fanciulla Del West” is one of Puccini’s lesser known operas. It not having achieved the worldwide fame of some his other works such as “La Boheme” or “Madame Butterfly” yet it has a beauty about it which in my opinion manages to capture not only the romance of Italian opera but the optimism of those who ventured west during the San Francisco gold rush. This story in fact taking place sometime after 1849, somewhere near San Francisco.


As for the plot, it is the story of a simple yet good woman by the name of Minnie, who owns and operates a salon called the Polka in a California mining town during the years of the gold rush. Minnie is a woman who is greatly admired by the men of her community, not only for her bible lessons but for the selfless deeds she performs; such as taking care of the men when they are ill along with many other acts of kindness. Minnie however is all alone, as she is a single woman living in what could be for the most part considered a lawless land and it is precisely with the intensions of providing her with the protection of a home that Jack Rance (town sheriff ) offers to take her to wife. This being an offer which she refuses, her claiming that she knows him to be a solid man, who would give her a good home but on the other hand she feels that accepting marriage simply on the grounds of convenience is not love. Jack Rance, for his part feels that such matters are inconsequential and claims that her claims of love are more poetic than reality. I in what concerns me, can see my friend and fellow author, Marcela Vanmak playing the role of this brave woman, who has traveled so far from her home to start a new life in a place which at the time was a very hostile environment and despite the difficulties; managed to own her own salon.


It is after Minnie, once again refuses Jack Rance’s proposal of marriage that she hears of a man who has ordered whisky with water which makes Minnie laugh, as to her way of seeing things; this is what should be taken straight. Minnie however recognizes him from before and agrees to serve him his drink as he has ordered it yet it is at this moment that she is enchanted by the stranger calling himself Dick Johnson, who apart from wanting a drink also wishes to invite Minnie for a waltz which she gladly accepts. It being with grace that Minnie and Johnson dance to the music being played by some of the guests at the Polka, who also wish to express their apologies for having confused their newly arrived guest with the wanted bandit, Ramirez.


As Minnie waltzes through the room, as if on a cloud of romance, guided by Johnson. It is clear to all, specially Jack Rance that there are strong emotions at work which are directing the lady whom they all know and respect in to sentiments of adoration for the newly arrived stranger. Jack Rance, feels jealousy yet says nothing while Minnie dances in Johnson’s arms, who is every bit the gallant gentleman to take his lady by the hand with a smile to dazzle this simply yet good hearted woman. It however is while Minnie and Johnson are finding in each other’s eyes the adoration for one another which till that moment they had not in any other that a man going by the name of Castro, is brought in to the salon; who in fact belongs to Ramirez’s gang of bandits. Castro has agreed to lead the sheriff to his boss yet before he leaves the Polka, to naturally take Rance’s men on a wild goose chase; he secretly informs Johnson (who in reality is the bandit, Ramirez) that somebody will whistle and that he should reply if and when it is safe to rob the Polka saloon.


Johnson is left alone with Minnie, whom he has fallen in love with as she with him, as in fact both confess this to each other and it is then that the expected whistle is heard yet Johnson in what can be seen as an act which is out of character for him does not respond to inform that the Polka is empty. Minnie in fact has been so much taken in by Johnson that she shows him the golden keg which is kept in the Polka and guarded around the clock by not only herself but the rest of the miners. Johnson looks at Minnie with all the tenderness which had never been his to give to any other woman, as he assures her that this treasure is safe just where it is.


Minnie and Johnson agree to meet in her cabin the following evening as they part company yet it is with tears that Minnie does so. As they sing away about their newly found love as Minnie confesses to Johnson that she felt like a woman who was good for nothing but was living a dream because of him. Johnson on the other hand expresses his feelings on to Minnie that she is a woman of true value who deserves so much in what brings act one to a close.


“La Fanciulla Del West” can be considered Puccini’s American opera much like “Turandot” can be considered his Chinese opera while “Madame Butterfly” his Japanese opera yet while Turadot and Madame Butterfly have musical elements of the countries where there stories take place; La Fanciulla Del West has nothing what so ever in common with American music. This to the point that it has very little, if anything to do with America apart from its story. As the music is typically Italian, in all sense of the word though some very slight American melodies can be picked up. They in reality being so faint that one would have to be the possessor of a very sensitive ear but these melodies do make their presence felt in an opera which musically speaking almost holds nothing to make it American.