Giacomo Puccini’s operas have a long history of being hailed as “cinematic.” Such descriptions began to appear during his lifetime and persisted in the years following his death, and more recent scholarship has continued to echo them. Associations between Puccini and film also extend to the cinematic screen: there are numerous filmed versions and adaptations of his operas, and his music has been featured in film soundtracks since the 1930s. Nevertheless, even though Puccini’s career roughly coincided with the first three decades of film history, surprisingly little is known about his attitude toward film or how it may have influenced his oeuvre. Taking La fanciulla del West as a case study, I investigate the complex historical relationship between early cinema, Puccini, and his operas, focusing particularly on the connections between Fanciulla and three American silent film genres that were popular in the years leading up to the opera’s premiere: early or “Eastern” Westerns, chase films, and lynching or execution films. I begin by investigating the filmic world to which Puccini and his creative team were exposed, tracing the evolution of cinema to 1910. I then turn specifically to the chase scene and attempted lynching in act 3 of Fanciulla, which I analyze in relation to the aforementioned genres, as well as to Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West, on which the libretto is based. Finally, I offer new perspectives on what it means—and meant—to understand Puccini’s operas as cinematic. In so doing, I demonstrate that the meaning of the adjective “cinematic” is historically contingent, not determined by immutable characteristics or qualities.

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