Anyone familiar with the "Spaghetti Westerns" of the 1960s knows that the American west has held a particular fascination for film audiences in Italy -- indeed throughout Europe. However, such memorable films such as A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were only the culmination of a European love affair with the folklore and adventure of the wild west that dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. With this in mind, then, it is easier to understand why, in 1907, Giacomo Puccini--the leading composer of Italian opera--would turn to the gold mining towns of California as inspiration for his most ambitious opera to date.
Puccini saw David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West while attending the premieres of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. While he was not immediately sure of the work itself, he left New York with a lingering interest in western themes, and when his publisher, Tito Ricordi, engaged Carlo Zingarini to write a libretto based on Belasco's play, Puccini embraced the project with great enthusiasm. Composition would not begin, however, for a further nine months, as Puccini's time and energies were quickly consumed by a domestic tragedy involving the suicide of his maidservant, and a subsequent lawsuit against his wife, Elvira.
Work on the opera was finally completed in August of 1910.
Puccini's Fanciulla is the story of Minnie, a saloon owner in a mining town who falls in love with a notorious bandit; she places herself at risk to help him escape from an angry posse. The composer felt that the finished product was his finest work yet, integrating new tonal idioms and dramatic devices into his essentially lyrical style, while achieving a whole new level of concision. The organic, through-composed nature of the score makes excerpting arias and ensembles difficult; in fact, the bandit Ramerrez's third-act aria, "Ch'ella me creda liberto e lontano," is the only true set piece in the entire opera. However, there are other memorable tunes, not the least of which is the sentimental ballad, "Che faranno i vecchi miei là lontano," which appears early on in the first scene, and the tune of which recurs frequently as a unifying element.
The premiere, at the Metropolitan Opera in November, 1910, was notable for its inclusion of Enrico Caruso in the role of Ramerrez (a.k.a. Dick Johnson) and was by all accounts a triumph; but enthusiasm for Fanciulla quickly faded, and it has never firmly established itself in the repertory.